American society must abandon the notion that science will provide clear-cut answers about the environment and climate change and learn to make policy decisions based on research trends and probabilities rather than absolute conclusions, a New York Times science writer said Tuesday in a lecture at AAAS.
Andrew Revkin, an environmental reporter and the author of two books, said that environmental stories in the 21st century “are all incremental, complicated and laden with uncertainties.”
“We have to understand, and society has to become comfortable with, making decisions in uncertainty,” Revkin said in the Robert C. Barnard Environmental Lecture at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. He spoke to an audience of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows and others.
The lectureship honors the late Robert C. Barnard, who made significant contributions to environmental and public health law during a legal career of more than 50 years. He was counsel to the international law firm Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, which now endows the lectureship.
The AAAS S&T Policy Fellowships bring scientists into government service in a variety of agencies and in Congress. The fellowships are designed to establish and nurture critical links between federal decision-makers and scientific professionals to support public policy that benefits the well-being of the nation and the world. The program supports the AAAS objectives to improve public policymaking through the infusion of science, and to increase public understanding of science and technology.
In his lecture, Revkin said that after covering global warming for almost 20 years, he is convinced that there will never be a time when he can write a story that states clearly that global warming “happened today.”
“It is never going to be the kind of story that will give you the level of certainty that everyone seems to crave,” he said. “We are assaulted with complexity and uncertainty. Somehow, we need to convey that in all that information, with those question marks, there is a trajectory to knowledge.”
American society is uneasy with the equivocal answers that often are the best environmental scientists can provide, said Revkin. Newspapers are uncomfortable with “murk,” and politicians and Congress “hate it,” he said.
Yet, despite the lack of crystal clarity, “you can still make decisions. Uncertainties don’t let you off the hook,” he said, even though some people in politics have used the uncertainties for that purpose.
Revkin holds a biology degree from Brown University and a degree in journalism from Columbia University. He became interested in the environment while on a study project in the late 1970s that carried him to French Polynesia in the Pacific and on a sailing voyage from New Zealand to Europe. Later, he studied people in the Amazon basin who were attempting to preserve the rain forest. He became a reporter for the Times in 1995 and has traveled extensively to report on efforts to sustain human life without destroying the environment.
This work has convinced him, he said, that humans are caught in a race involving three concepts: “our ability to shape the Earth… our ability to comprehend the Earth… and our ability to get out of the way when we realize we are in a risky situation.”
The effect of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans is an example of how society has responded to a risky situation, he said.
Since 1969, when Hurricane Camille churned ashore nearby, it was known that New Orleans “was designed to survive a hit from a Category 3 hurricane, but was now living in a Category 5 world,” said Revkin. “We were willing to live with that gamble in all of the years since then, and now many people are paying the cost.”
In the wake of Katrina, he said, Americans must decide how to deal with risks. He said society can either make greater use of science in planning for long-term risks or “we can just hunker down and weather each storm as it comes. I am not sure which way we are going to go yet.”
While sailing up the Red Sea, Revkin said, he saw a desert city that was abandoned because of climate change. The experience gave him “a strong sense of the transient nature of human existence” and makes him wonder now how America should confront the disaster in New Orleans.
“How long do you hang in there with New Orleans?” he asked. “It has a very deep culture, a deep part of the American fabric, but it is already underwater and everything around is subsiding, the ocean rising. At what point do we as a society say we need to rethink how that is all playing out?”
Revkin said he finds comfort in the fact that there are still scientists and other people who are trying “in an open-minded and transparent way” to understand how the environment can be preserved and who are “braving the landscape of policy.”
“It is very easy to be a scientist and just do your work and try to avoid (policy questions),” he said, “but it is getting harder and harder and it is also getting less and less responsible not to get into that landscape.”