Science in Environmental Policy: The Politics of Objective Advice – By Anne Campbell Keller
Article first published online: 17 MAR 2011
© 2011 by The Policy Studies Organization
Review of Policy Research
Volume 28, Issue 2, pages 219–220, March 2011
How to Cite
Burnam, J. (2011), Science in Environmental Policy: The Politics of Objective Advice – By Anne Campbell Keller. Review of Policy Research, 28: 219–220. doi: 10.1111/j.1541-1338.2011.00490_1.x
- Issue published online: 17 MAR 2011
- Article first published online: 17 MAR 2011
Science in Environmental Policy: The Politics of Objective Advice . Cambridge, MA : The MIT Press . iv + 278 pages. ISBN 9789780262512961 , $26.00 paper . . 2009 .
In this valuable book, Anne Campbell Keller takes up the scholarly debate over the role that science and scientists play in the policy-making process. Some scholars portray the role of science in policy making as robust, while others tend to discount it. Even individual studies of the same environmental issue reach differing conclusions regarding the contributions of science to policy resolution. Considering the problems of acid rain and climate change and employing an extensive literature review, Professor Keller shows that the influence of scientists and the norms governing their participation in the policy-making process depend on the venue, which she divides into agenda setting, legislation, and implementation.
Scientists played a key role in agenda setting on acid rain and climate change and often used dramatic rhetoric in doing so, referring to “acid rain” as “chemical warfare” and climate change as a “large-scale geophysical experiment.” During the agenda-setting stage, scientists do not just provide causal stories; they voice opinions regarding the urgency and significance of the problem, and despite lingering scientific uncertainties, their narratives are rarely rebutted by dissenting scientists in this stage.
Once acid rain and climate change move toward placement on the legislative agenda, scientists became sensitive to the need to maintain a public face of objectivity and prefer to speak for a scientific consensus rather than to state a personal view (even if asked). In this stage, their narrative may come under attack so they need to be prepared to defend the scientific consensus such as it is. The establishment of scientific assessment bodies such as the National Acid Precipitation Assessment Program (NAPAP) in 1980 and of the International Panel on Climate Change Program (ICCP) in 1989 was useful to scientists in this regard, helping them to maintain an objective public face while also allowing legislators to claim that the measures they were proposing were validated by an existing scientific consensus.
When and if issues reach the implementation phase, there are established procedures and protocols designed to separate science and policy and the scientists from the decision makers, and although the technical issues may be significant, a clear boundary between them and policy issues is observed.
Keller is right to maintain that a scientific consensus is important in setting the groundwork for potential legislative action on acid rain and climate change; however, differences in the character of the scientific consensus on these two issues caused Congress and the president to respond in different ways.
Congress was aware of the scientific consensus on acid rain when it began drafting legislation in 1989 in response to presidential leadership and a strong public mood for action that was occasioned when the hot summer of 1988 drove air pollution levels to extraordinary levels. The draft NAPAP Report was released and it suggested that acid rain was a problem not a crisis whose resolution might have to affect the entire economy. So President George H. W. Bush was able to propose and Congress was able to adopt a relatively modest but innovative pollution trading and reduction scheme that was politically feasible and economically efficient; indeed, considering human health as well as environmental effects, the new law was subsequently found to have had a wildly positive benefit to cost ratio of 66 to one. The scientific consensus on acid rain made the politics easy.
By contrast, a firm scientific consensus on climate change took decades to emerge; it was not until 2007 that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was able to state “unequivocally” that climate change was largely due to human influence. At the same time, dramatic events such as floods, hurricanes, droughts, and melting glaciers had persuaded the public to accept the science of climate change and to support strong measures to control it. That support was subsequently weakened by the exposure of some minor technical errors in the IPCC Report and some unflattering emails among a few scientists but mostly by the near collapse of the world economy. However, presumably, these are temporary factors. The problem with the scientific consensus on climate change is that it implies a need for drastic control measures to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions, measures so drastic that they may not be politically feasible in the United States or other major emitters. The scientific consensus on climate change makes the politics hard.
Keller raises the question of whether her findings have general applicability. She puzzles over Kingdon's conclusion that health professionals have little influence in agenda setting for health policy but greater influence in the alternative selection stage, the reverse of her findings on acid rain and climate change. However, that discrepancy is to be expected. Both acid rain and climate change are problems so subtle that scientists are needed to make the necessary causal connections and to bring them to public attention. This is probably also true of other environment and health problems, but it is not true of all of them. For example, in the 1960s, the public did not need scientists to tell them that they were choking on major plumes of dense industrial air emissions or that the Cuyahoga River had caught fire because it was so heavily polluted. Events such as these triggered a public mood for action that led to the enactment of a strong clean water and an even stronger clean air law.
Keller successfully demonstrates that the norms of scientific participation and the influence of scientists vary across policy venues. This seems appropriate given our political culture, which respects expert opinion but prefers democratic to technocratic solutions. However, the influence that scientists have in resolving complex problems such as acid rain and climate change also depends upon whether the scientific consensus points toward an economically and politically acceptable solution. This has not yet happened in the case of climate change.