When people hold strongly conflicting values, interests, and beliefs, there is not much that science can do to compel action. Indeed, more research and more facts often make a conflict worse by providing support to competing sides in the debate, and by distracting decision-makers and the public from the underlying, political disagreement. In such cases each side will claim to have the scientific high ground.
Writing in the New York Times last week, Al Gore made exactly this point about climate change by noting that "the science has become clearer and clearer." Yes, there is a robust scientific consensus that human activity is causing the atmosphere to warm up. But so what? Decision-makers need to know how climate change will affect specific political jurisdictions, and, more importantly, what types of interventions will make a difference, over what time scales, at what costs, and to whose benefit--and whose detriment.
Sarewitz's op-ed resonates with my own views on the issue shared earlier this week at Dot Earth and in a news report at the NYTimes.com. Until we propose policies that reflect the values and input of a range of political voices and until we communicate about the national and local benefits of those policies, we may never overcome political paralysis. Moreover, the more that scientists and environmental advocates become distracted by the climate skeptic movement, responding to every new attack with a combo of war rhetoric and technical defenses of the science, the deeper the divide on climate change is likely to grow.
Sarewitz's full article is a must-read, but here's how he ends:
Politics isn't about maximizing rationality, it's about finding compromises that enough people can live with to allow society to take steps in the right direction. Contrary to all our modern instincts, then, political progress on climate change requires not more scientific input into politics, but less. Value disputes that are hidden behind the scientific claims and counterclaims need to be flushed out and brought into the sunlight of democratic deliberation. Until that happens, the political system will remain in gridlock, and everyone will be convinced that they are on the side of truth.