TCS Daily


Science Matters - Even for the Environment

By Kenneth Green - February 5, 2001 12:00 AM

Over the last 20 years, there has been a quiet revolution in the environmental movement. Where those wanting to document and resolve environmental problems once embraced scientific methodologies, the passion for science has cooled.

As the large, easily characterized problems have been eliminated, the very institutions of scientific inquiry -- transparency, rigorous standards of evidence, and communication of uncertainty -- have all come under fire as environmental advocates push for policies that often transcend environmental safety or healthfulness and embody a quest for environmental purity. Some groups have even gone so far as to warn their policy activists to minimize the involvement of scientists in the policy development process, since they are not as likely to go along with proposals that are not supported by scientifically rigorous findings. In a publication of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste, for example, would-be activists are warned that ... "Relying on the strength of scientific information rather than organizing can ... cause problems. For one thing, it leads to "dueling experts syndrome" instead of campaigns based on common sense."

The divorce between environmental activism and environmental science isn't complete: activists still cite scientific findings when proclaiming a problem. But science is clearly ghettoized in the laboratory and gamed in the policy process.

Take climate change. While there is a plausible theory linking human activities to recent changes in Earth's climate, scientific understanding of what changes are occurring and why remains incomplete. Yet politics is overtaking this scientific uncertainty.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a political organization, produces the policy guidance documents that dominate international policy discussions. The reports of the IPCC are portrayed as scientific documents. Yet IPCC reports are outlined by governmental representatives, who recruit scientists on an ad hoc basis to write the text of key reports.

Expert reviewers examine draft chapters of the landmark climate change "assessment reports" only once. They have no veto power and do not review revised documents. In contrast, governmental representatives review the documents twice and offer input on revisions. Government officials write all document summaries, the only sections read by most policymakers and the media. These authors seek text approvals only from the lead authors of the underlying documents, not from a broader group of experts.

The process departs dramatically from standard scientific methodology and publishing procedures. Document architects only selectively include relevant studies. The peer review process is, at best, a fig leaf. The substitution of "judgment" for mathematically defined estimates of certainty and uncertainty dominate.

At the national level, science fares equally poorly in environmental decision processes. Consider the tightening of the national ambient air quality standards proposed in 1997. Before the rules were promulgated, the Clean Air Science Advisory Council to the Environmental Protection Agency pointed out that there was no scientific basis to justify making the standards for smog and soot more stringent.

Nonetheless, invoking her policy judgment, EPA Administrator Carol Browner (an attorney with no formal scientific training) pushed through new air quality standards that, in some regions, can only be attained if humans cease to emit any smog-forming chemicals at all. But the risk estimates cited by Browner in her decision were found by the Court of Appeals to have violated basic scientific reasoning. Five years after Browner's initial decision, the data cited to establish the rules, now under consideration by the Supreme Court, have not been released for independent review, despite numerous lawsuits and requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Gone are any transparency and ability to replicate experimental findings.

Finally, consider the flap over the plastic-softening chemicals called phthalates. A group called Health Care Without Harm launched a campaign to ban the use of phthalates in medical devices, claiming animal studies suggest phthalates are a health hazard. Such bans have been enacted in several European countries. But the group ignores several cardinal rules of toxicology -- that the dose makes the poison, and one animal's poison is another animal's dinner, since metabolic pathways differ.

Why does all this matter? Why should environmental policy be subject to scientific rigor? Why should the process of crafting environmental policy be infused with the same scientific methodologies as laboratory or medical research?

A choice to invest resources in a policy that gets little return on investment leaves other potential risk-reducing options underfunded. As any portfolio manager can attest, getting the most bang for the investment buck is not something that can be done on a whim.

Reasonable people can disagree about environmental priorities, but ethical considerations suggest that society maximize the benefits and minimize the negative impacts of environmental policy. To do that, scientific rigor has to transcend the laboratory and have a solid presence where policy is made.

In the coming weeks, this column will explore issues involving environmental science and the role of science in crafting environmental policy. We'll post columns, interviews with leading scientists in the environmental, health and safety fields, and we'll post "news briefs," of interesting findings from journals such as science and Nature, infused with contextual information to help put new findings in policy perspective. Stop by often.
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