Where do you stand on climate change? Is the issue settled? Do you think there are still some uncertainties to be cleared up?
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Steven Koonin, a physicist and former undersecretary of energy for science during the Obama administration, suggested in this Wall Street Journal editorial last week, just a day ahead of the March for Science, that the issue is not as settled as some on both sides of the debate would have us believe, but that there might be a way to air the differences and come at least a little closer to consensus.
“At a recent national laboratory meeting,” he writes, “I observed more than 100 active government and university researchers challenge one another as they strove to separate human impacts from the climate’s natural variability. At issue were not nuances but fundamental aspects of our understanding, such as the apparent—and unexpected—slowing of global sea-level rise over the past two decades.”
Because so much of our policy, infrastructure investment, and other economic and environmental decisions depend on a clear understanding of what’s going on, he proposes a tried-and-true method of hashing out the differences by putting the various players into the ring and letting them battle it out in full view of the public. He recommends a Red Team/Blue Team exercise, such as has been used to identify risks and “reduce—or at least understand—uncertainties” in situations like analyzing the 1986 space shuttle Challenger accident and reviewing the facts on cold fusion in 1989. The process would start with a published scientific report on climate change, including recommendations for policymakers. A Red Team would critique the report, a Blue Team would rebut the critique, and the process would continue, back and forth, “to the point of diminishing returns.” The whole thing would be overseen and moderated by a commission made up of people who are technically knowledgeable but who are outside the established climate science community. The Red and Blue team members, he notes, would necessarily be members of that community and as such would be “avowedly opinionated scientists”—thus the need for an independent oversight commission.
The Red/Blue exercise, he notes, is very different from a traditional peer review process, which is usually confidential. This process, in contrast, “would produce a traceable public record that would allow the public and decision makers a better understanding of certainties and uncertainties. It would more firmly establish points of agreement and identify urgent research needs. Most important, it would put science front and center in policy discussions… The inherent tension of a professional adversarial process would enhance public interest, offering many opportunities to show laymen how science actually works.”
He notes that the process could go either way—showing that the current prevailing beliefs are either stronger or weaker than are widely supposed. “But whatever the outcome…climate policy discussions would be better informed.”
What do you think of his proposal? Would such an exercise be beneficial, either in strengthening the foundation on which we’re basing our decisions, or in improving public understanding of the issue, or both? And do you think it’s possible to assemble such a thing as a knowledgeable-but-neutral oversight commission?