Environmental Policy: More Science and Less Religion Please

Environmental policies must reflect the uncertainty inherent in science and new information that is always being collected.
Published on December 14, 2007

Environmentalists can be divided into many categories. There is the wise use conservation type (like me). There is the scientific ecologist. There is the committed activist, and then there is the deep ecologist. This latter group, largely, believes there is a spiritual dimension to Mother Nature. This leads to a philosophy whereby environmental policy decisions are based as much on the “rights” of the natural world as on the needs of humanity. In addition, it is often a case of symbolic acts taking the place of real and scientifically verifiable environmental outcomes. For example, most urban recycling programs have failed utterly, especially when attempting to recycle low value and environmentally benign products such as glass. Of course, when those of us with a scientific bent are mildly critical of such wasteful programs, the charge of “Don’t you care??!!” is flung back at us in an orgy of political correctness. Actually, I do care. So much so that I demand real environmental results for real environmental expenditures.

The eminent physicist Freeman Dyson wrote a paper titled “Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society” where he makes an eloquent case for a proper understanding of the uncertainties of science. He takes aim at the often uncritical public acceptance of any statement made by any scientist no matter that he or she may be making statements outside his or her field of expertise, or that the field is a hotbed of controversy. A Scientist said it, so it must be true. But, as Dyson so eloquently explains: “The politicians and the public expect science to provide answers to the problems. Scientific experts are paid and encouraged to provide answers. The public does not have much use for a scientist who says, ‘Sorry, but we don’t know.’ The public prefers to listen to scientists who give confident answers to questions and make confident predictions of what will happen as a result of human activities.”

One of the best definitions of science I have come across states, “Science is the self-correcting process of discovery.” Science is a process that lurches toward truth, backtracking from time to time, going sideways, standing still but is rarely, if ever, static. While the outcome is often in doubt, the process of evidence-based conclusions must be immutable.

The field of environmental science is suffering from growing pains as an energized public, demanding that governments “do something, anything about the environment,” collides with the growing realization that we do not yet have all the answers, and what appears as a truth today may be on tomorrow’s ash heap of failed hypotheses.

We are all familiar with the notion of climate change, and we have been told repeatedly that the science is settled. Well, as Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” And to prove Berra right, along came Steve McIntyre, a Canadian scientist and co-author, with Ross McKitrick, of the climate book, Taken by Storm. McIntyre, in the best scientific tradition, decided to do the math regarding the assumptions and calculations that went into the famous these are the hottest years in history hypothesis. The earlier NASA calculations concluded that 1998 was the hottest year on record, but McIntyre’s corrected calculations show that 1934 was the hottest. It must be noted that NASA accepted McIntyre’s numbers and issued a correction, although with no fanfare.

While this may seem like a bit of scientific trivia, policymakers are basing many decisions on the incorrect assumption that we are living in the hottest time in history. Of course, measuring past temperature trends on Earth is relatively simple, but one needs only to imagine the uncertainty that must exist when we try to predict the Earth’s climate trends over the next 100 years.

I am reminded of a 1967 must-read paper by environmental scientist Paul Ehrlich titled “Paying the Piper.” The paper concludes quite definitively that “the battle to feed humanity is over” and that “sometime between 1970 and 1985 the world will undergo vast famines–hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.”

It obviously did not happen and during that time, food production actually rose dramatically. Any people who are starving today are in that predicament due to bad governments and corruption and certainly not a lack of food. Ehrlich was dead wrong.

There is no sin in being wrong; the only sin is when mistakes are not corrected based on new evidence. Or as one wag put it, “When I’m presented with new information I change my mind; what do you do?”

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