July 21, 2009

Lost in Translation: Navigating the Gap between Climate Science and Policy

Last night CNAS hosted “Lost in Translation,” a dinner event that brought together key policy makers and scientists to discuss the age old question of why the two communities can’t often understand what each other are talking about. Up for discussion was the use of climate science in the policy-making process, and how to better meet the needs of both sides. More specifically, moderator Sharon Burke pushed participants to explain their personal experiences as consumers and producers of climate science.

At the forefront of the exchange was the recognition of the need for increased interparty communication. Congress, the President, scientists, and all other vested communities must talk to each other about climate change more honestly and at greater depth than ever before, one attendee remarked, with others around the table nodding vigorously in agreement. At times throughout the evening, participants contested and counter-contested their colleagues’ assertions, but a desire for greater communication among them all was unanimous. Indeed, some contended that this problem will never really be solved – scientists and policy makers will never be a perfect marriage – but that regular dialogue and a process of learning from one another will improve the situation.

The conversation focused on the gap between the needs of policy makers and what climate scientists tend to produce, and the gap in timing between producing good scientifically sound information and the rapid-fire decision-making timelines of the policy world. (CNAS established this line of study after its experiences in using cutting-edge climate change modeling as a premise for its 2008 scenario planning exercise, “Clout and Climate Change.”)  In order to ensure the dialogue was a robust account of the state of the problem, representatives from all pertinent communities were involved. Relevant Congressional committee staff, scientists, industry analysts, members of the intelligence community, local and federal agency officials, and representatives from the Executive Office of the President attended this off-the-record conversation.

Over the course of the nearly two-and-a-half hour dinner, three themes emerged. First, participants concurred that confronting climate change will require strong national-level leadership. By and large, they expected that any changes to the current methods of how climate science is produced and consumed would have to come from the highest levels of the government.  Even with vocal federal leadership, though, some in attendance were concerned that the successes of municipal and metropolitan efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change might not be directly scalable to meet the needs of the U.S. federal government.

A second observation surrounded the present state of climatological research. Scientists in the room agreed that extant data in the body of climate change research is currently underutilized in matters of both informing public opinion and policy making. Specifically, attendees thought more could be done to emphasize the reality of climate change as a planetary phenomenon that is occurring now, rather than a threat looming out on the horizon.

Finally, there was agreement that priorities must change, generally speaking. At a glance, this observation may seem needlessly general, but it necessarily underscores a deep-seated and pervasive discontentment with status quo in both the scientific and policy communities. As for what needs to change—whether it’s tracked variables, R&D spending, or the very conceptualization of U.S. national security to better include threats such as climate change—that was the subject of a vigorous and yet unresolved debate.  What was clear, however, is that the conversation is just getting started.

I should emphasize that this represents only my immediate reaction. In the weeks to come, Will Rogers and Dr. Jay Gulledge will collaborate on a CNAS report which further dissects the conversation and offers policy recommendations to the administration, and we will continue to discuss this problem actively on this blog.