Monday, April 04, 2011

Who decides?

"We are always paid for our suspicion by finding what we suspect."
Henry David Thoreau

Lillian BeVier, one of the most popular profs at UVa Law, used this basic question to teach constitutional law. Her point was that societies face many decisions, and it is important to decide which institutions will make them. And to have "checks and balances" in the system.

Today, we face big challenges that go beyond national boundaries. I was reminded of Prof. BeVier this morning when I read this article: "Tweaking the climate to save it: Who decides?"

The theme of the article is that political institutions are at a logjam on actions which might significantly reduce/mitigate green house gasses (Copenhagen), so it might be prudent to have a "Plan B" for involving adaptation and geo-engineering.

Atmospheric scientists might learn from the experience of their biotechnology colleagues. Political decisions get made by people who don't understand the science, and (this can be frustrating) on grounds that have little to do with science (see Stem Cells). But bringing in experts from other fields, such as ethics, political science, economics- and yes, law- will result in a broader conversation and a better chance for a workable framework to emerge.

Just as there are frameworks for approvals before injecting animals or people with chemicals... we will need similar frameworks before experimenting with injecting the atmosphere with chemical "cures." So, who decides what the framework is, and how it will be implemented?

The Royal Society tapped academic experts in their 2009 report "Geoengineering the Climate" which included a chapter on governance, including short sections on ethics and international frameworks. These provide an overview of the issues, but little traction on our question.*

From the "Tweaking" article, it appears that these fields were represented at the tranquil countryside estate of Chicheley. While I could not find the list of attendees at this meeting (transparency?) the journalist reported that attendees came from an invitation list** of "blue-ribbon cross section of atmospheric physicists, oceanographers, geochemists, environmentalists, international lawyers, psychologists, [and] policy makers" from six continents. No mention of ethicists, economists or engineers.

It seems that the attendees had a hard time wrapping their heads around this being a credible "Plan B." One participant stated "as soon as you start to do this research, you say its OK to think about things you shouldn't be thinking about." Really? I better go read up again on the scientific method. But it concerns me that there are things we "shouldn't be thinking about." Not the best approach for someone fancying themselves a "decider," is it?

So, back to the title. Who decides? At this point, the scientists are taking the lead on what seems to be more of a policy question. I hope that the process will be open minded, transparent and accepting of diverse points of view. And that they remember that while science provides an important perspective on the topic, others will be needed if there really is going to be a Plan B.
*One of my favorites: "A sufficiently high carbon price, credits for sequestration and financial support for reduced radiative forcing would be necessary to stimulate greater entrepreneurial activity in developing geoengineering technology. It is not yet clear if this would be desirable." (p 44)

**the article notes that the invitations were put together by the Royal Society and the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF is a well known environmental organization, and I respect much of their work. But it is far from unbiased when it comes to geoengineering. While I might agree with their view on geoengineering, I am concerned that they were doing the invitation list. The scientific community just doesn't seem to get it that these approaches reinforce the perception of bias, and undermine the credibility of meetings like this one. I guess it might have disturbed the countryside tranquility to invite a Nathan Myhrvold, Bjorn Lomborg or Steven Levitt to the event.

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