Nonlinear risk and the limitations of democracy: Academic cross-training as a partial remedy

This post contributed by ESA Science Policy Analyst Piper Corp.

It isn’t surprising that climate legislation is stalling in Congress. In tough economic times, an emissions cap—like any other major investment—is a tough sell at best, requiring US households and industry to swallow added costs in the short-term for projected savings down the road. What’s more, the current symptoms of rising temperatures don’t reflect the magnitude of changes to come. Like many other contemporary challenges, climate change is nonlinear—policymakers have to draw from scientific models, not current observations, when making decisions.

But climate-related struggles in Congress suggest a larger dilemma: Can our legal system adequately address nonlinear processes? Legislative priorities reflect the concerns of constituents—concerns dominated by the most immediate demands. When time and funds are short, the squeaky wheel almost always gets the oil, and ecological risks are often comparatively silent until they reach a tipping point. Once we experience the magnitude of change necessary to elicit widespread public response, much of that change may be irreversible.

According to scientist James Lovelock, best known for proposing the Gaia Theory, democracy is not cut out for addressing climate change. In a recent interview, Lovelock said:

We need a more authoritative world. We’ve become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say. It’s all very well, but there are certain circumstances – a war is a typical example – where you can’t do that. You’ve got to have a few people with authority who you trust who are running it. And they should be very accountable too, of course.

But it can’t happen in a modern democracy. This is one of the problems. What’s the alternative to democracy? There isn’t one. But even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.

Obviously, this is an unlikely scenario. So what do we do? As in previous discussions of science and policy, it seems that taking a successful integrative approach doesn’t just mean listening to both science and other parts of society; it means rethinking the ways we design experiments and approach policymaking. Integration, in other words, must happen from the get-go—a somewhat lofty requirement to be sure. In environmental policy, most scientists don’t fully understand the political implications of their work, just as most lawmakers don’t fully understand the science behind their decisions. Rather, individuals from both groups research the issue on their own, consulting experts as needed, until they have enough information to answer their questions. But expertise has as much to do with knowing which questions to ask as it does with knowing the answers. Particularly in ecology, where society is part of the system, it seems that both scientists and lawmakers could benefit tremendously from a more in-depth understanding of each other’s fields.



In the latest Ecologist Goes to Washington podcast, ESA Graduate Student Policy Award winner Patrick Shirey discusses the government response to another significant ecological risk: invasive species. Shirey began his Ph.D. in biology at the University of Notre Dame after earning his law degree and MS in wildlife science. Focusing on the potential Asian carp invasion in the Great Lakes, he discusses how his background in law has changed and enhanced his understanding of ecological issues and the options for addressing them with policy.

Author: Nadine Lymn

ESA Director of Public Affairs

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  1. Ecologist Goes to Washington » Asian Carp Two Ways: The Politics and Ecology of Ecological Risks - [...] more discussion, see the accompanying post on ESA’s blog, [...]

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