“Expertise matters for climate solutions, not just for climate science.”

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Jonathan Koomey, independent analyst and Consulting Professor at Stanford University,  comments on our July 2010 interview with Stephen Schneider on climate science expert credibility, and their exchange on clarifying a point about the need for policy expertise in deciding what to do about climate change.

A short commentary on Climate Science Watch's July 8, 2010 interview with Professor Stephen Schneider

By Jonathan Koomey, Consulting Professor, Stanford University

Prologue

I originally wrote an email to Steve Schneider containing the essence of this comment in the week of July 12, 2010.  Steve cc:ed Rick Piltz on his reply and we jointly agreed I should write it up more formally and append it to the interview.

Here is Steve’s email commenting on my more formal writeup, written the day before he died:

From: Stephen H Schneider <shs@stanford.edu>

Date: July 18, 2010 12:04:26 PM PDT

To: Jonathan Koomey <jgkoomey@stanford.edu>

Cc: Rick Piltz - Climate Science Watch <xxxxx.xxxxx>

Subject: Re: I loved your interview with climatesciencewatch.org, but I have one small quibble

Thanks, Jon.

Reads fine and is a fair statement for me. I meant all have equal right to one vote per person on risk management, informed or not, but not equal right to be quoted on policy or technology if not competent--I misspoke on that so thanks for this clarification. When will you post it, Rick?

Cheers,

Steve

I reproduce the email here because it demonstrates one of the most important things I learned from Steve: the need to be crystal clear about how science should and does interact with politics and policy, both in theory and in practice.  This interface is where the distinction between facts and values comes into play, and it is a treacherous area for many scientists, because it pushes them far outside their expertise, training, and well-honed ways of interacting within their peer community.  Steve was one of very few scientists who could bridge the divide between science and policy in a way that benefited both.

I always admired Steve for his courage in speaking out on the climate issue, but I later came to realize that this courage grew naturally from his absolute devotion to intellectual and personal honesty.  It didn’t matter if you said something that supported or opposed his point of view, he judged it on the merits and if it was a dumb idea, he’d tell you so, in no uncertain terms.  In a way, he just couldn’t help himself—if it was the truth, it needed to be said, and on many scientific topics he was better able than most to say it.

I have vivid memories of almost all of my interactions with Steve, as a colleague at Stanford, as an Aldo Leopold Fellowship trainee, and as a fellow member of two student dissertation committees.  I initially thought the intensity of these memories arose because Steve’s brain worked faster than mine and I struggled to remember it all so I wouldn’t miss any of his insights.  But there’s another reason: Steve lived life with a passion and a sense of immediacy that is rare and special, and so his interactions with others were especially rich and rewarding.  Our 22 month-old twin boys do the same, but few adults preserve this way of living in their later years. Steve reveled in it.

Steve was my mentor, my colleague, and my friend, and I miss him. I’ll continue to use the insights he taught me to fight to protect the climate, as I’ve been doing for more than two decades. I can think of no better way to honor my friend.

COMMENTS ON THE INTERVIEW

This is a wonderful interview from which I will be quoting for years to come.  I particularly like the discussions of the role of expertise in informing complex technical decisions.  Steve often talked about this issue, but this interview is by far the clearest statement I've ever heard him (or anyone else) give on this topic.

I do have one quibble, however, and it's with this statement:

“When we're talking about what to do about it, then every citizen's opinion is just as important as anybody else's, and everybody should be quoted. “

Some might misinterpret this sentence to imply that everyone's opinion is equally valid on climate solutions, but expertise matters in that realm also.  For example, if someone claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine then that person's opinion is NOT important because such a machine is ruled out by the laws of thermodynamics.  Similarly for people who think that changes in complex power and manufacturing infrastructure can happen overnight, or those who think significant changes in such systems are impossible:  The historical record proves them wrong.

What I think Steve was trying to say (and I know he said something like this on numerous occasions in other forums as well as in an email to me on Wednesday, July 14, 2010) is that deciding what to do about climate is a choice that is value-laden (as all choices are) and that the normal political processes for each society must come into play in deciding what to do.   But these discussions need also to be informed by experts with relevant domain knowledge about the risks of inaction and the costs and potentials for different ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  That means that expertise matters for climate solutions (and for all branches of science and technology), not just for climate science. More generally, expertise, properly applied, helps us clarify the facts so we can make political and social choices consonant with our values.

For more on the facts and values distinction, see:

Simon, Herbert A. 1997. Administrative Behavior:  A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organizations. Fourth ed. New York, NY: The Free Press.

Koomey, Jonathan. 2008. Turning Numbers into Knowledge:  Mastering the Art of Problem Solving. 2nd ed. "Chapter 19:  Distinguish Facts from Values."   Oakland, CA: Analytics Press. <http://www.analyticspress.com>

Jonathan Koomey (http://www.koomey.com) is an independent researcher, author, and entrepreneur.  He’s a Consulting Professor at Stanford University and was the founder of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s energy forecasting group, which he led for more than 11 years. He was also a coauthor of a book published in 1989 that contained the first comprehensive analysis of implications of the 2-degree warming limit, two decades before the G8 nations accepted this normative target.  For a summary of the importance of the 2-degree limit, check out Koomey, Jonathan, and Florentin Krause. 2009. Why 2 degrees really matters.

Earlier CSW posts:

“Preparing for Climate Change” – Steve Schneider continues to confront us with inconvenient truths

Interview with Stephen Schneider on climate science expert credibility study

New study finds striking level of agreement among climate experts on anthropogenic climate change

Stephen Schneider: Eulogies and Tributes

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