by Judith Curry
“Many of today’s ecological policy issues are contentious, socially divisive, and full of conundrums.” – Robert Lackey
Dr. Robert T. Lackey is senior fisheries biologist at the U.S. EPA research laboratory in Corvallis, Oregon, whose current professional focus is providing policy-relevant science to help inform ongoing salmon policy discussions. His recent publications can be found [here]. Many of the issues he discusses are relevant for the climate science-policy interface. This post focuses on the following paper:
Lackey, Robert T. 2006. Axioms of ecological policy. Fisheries. 31(6): 286-290. [link] Excerpts of particular relevance to the climate science-policy interface:
[These problems] are often described as wicked, messy policy problems (e.g., reversing the decline of salmon; deciding on the proper role of wild fire on public lands; what to do, if anything, about climate change; worries about the consequences of declining biological diversity; making sense about the confusing policy choices surrounding notions of sustainability).
Wicked, messy ecological policy problems share several qualities: (1) complexity — innumerable options and trade-offs; (2) polarization — clashes between competing values; (3) winners and losers — for each policy choice, some will clearly benefit, some will be harmed, and the consequences for others is uncertain; (4) delayed consequences — no immediate “fix” and the benefits, if any, of painful concessions will often not be evident for decades; (5) decision distortion — advocates often appeal to strongly held values and distort or hide the real policy choices and their consequences; (6) national vs. regional conflict — national (or international) priorities often differ substantially from those at the local or regional level; and (7) ambiguous role for science — science is often not pivotal in evaluating policy options, but science often ends up serving inappropriately as a surrogate for debates over values and preferences.
As if they are not messy enough, ecological policy issues may become further clouded by skepticism about the independence of scientists and scientific information.
Much of the available science is tendered by government agencies, companies and corporations, and public and private organizations, as well as myriad public and private interest and advocacy groups. Each arguably has a vested interest in the outcome of the debate and often promulgates “science” that supports its favored position.
All ecological policy problems have unique features, thus there are exceptions to every generality, but are there lessons learned that can be broadly applied? The purpose of this article is to propose a set of such lessons learned.
Axiom 1 — The policy and political dynamic is a zero-sum game
Probably the most sobering reality for the uninitiated is that selecting any proposed policy choice results in winners and losers. The search for a “win-win” choice, which sounds so tantalizing to decision makers, is hopeless with even superficial policy analysis. There are always winners and losers even though people running for office may try to convince the voters otherwise.
Except for the most trivial policy issues, compromise is necessary to craft a proposed policy that is democratically possible. Thus, ecological policy winds up as the classic zero-sum game. Accepting this reality encourages serious discussion about how to best resolve complex ecological policy issues.
Axiom 2 — The distribution of benefits and costs is more important than the ratio of total benefits to total costs
Complicating ecological policy analysis is that, exclusive of money, one person’s benefits may be another’s costs. Preserving a wetland, for example, is a benefit for those wishing to preserve such land in its unaltered condition, but such a policy option is a cost to those who wish to ditch and drain the same land to improve agricultural productivity.
To the uninitiated it may seem that the most important factor in decision making is weighing the total benefits against the total costs. Rather, it is usually the case that the most important factor is the perception of who receives the benefits vs. who will bear the costs.
Axiom 3 — The most politically viable policy choice spreads the benefits to a broad majority with the costs limited to a narrow minority of the population
To gain sufficient political support (votes) for a proposed policy, it is prudent for the decision maker to spread the benefits across a sufficiently large number of people to garner majority support. The corollary is that those (including future generations) who bear the costs should be a minority and the smaller the better.
In political dialog the narrowly-defined minority is often labeled pejoratively as a “special interest” or some other term meant to isolate the group from the majority and weaken the force of its argument.
None of these policy advocacy tactics necessarily are wrong, immoral, or unethical, but rather reflect the nature of democratic debate. Those involved in policy analysis or providing science to help inform policy debates, however, should be attuned to such tendencies.
Axiom 4 — Potential losers are usually more assertive and vocal than potential winners and are, therefore, disproportionately important in decision making
With many ecological policy questions, those who bear the costs, the losers, have a disproportionately greater influence on the decision making process. While policy analysis tends to evaluate the rationality of competing policy arguments, the political process tends to weigh breath and vigor in support of each competing policy option.
Axiom 5 — Many advocates will cloak their arguments as science to mask their personal policy preferences
Those of us who work in applied ecology must be constantly on guard against the incursion of normative science into our scientific language and thought. Normative science has built-in, often subtle, policy preferences and biases. Referring to an ecosystem as being ‘sick’ or ‘healthy’ is predicated on a value judgment that one state of that ecosystem is preferable to another. Such a diagnosis may be appropriate as personal or collective policy judgments, but should not be offered under the guise of providing policy neutral science.
Scientists should, as they often do, play an important role in ecological policy deliberations, however their role should be carefully circumscribed even though political institutions rarely provide clear boundaries or guidance. Some of the players in policy deliberations, along with much of the public, remain ignorant to what is scientific information vs. a policy preference that sounds like science.
Axiom 6 — Even with complete and accurate scientific information, most policy issues remain divisive
The lament that “if we just had some better science, we could resolve this policy question” is common among both scientists and decision makers. Calls for more research are ubiquitous in ecological policy debates.
In most policy cases, even if we had complete scientific knowledge about all aspects of an issue, the same rancorous debate would emerge. Root policy differences are invariably over values and preferences, not science and facts.
Axiom 7 — Demonizing policy advocates supporting competing policy options is often more effective than presenting rigorous analytical arguments
Scientists and policy analysts become frustrated when they fail to recognize that political debates are partly logical argument and partly image. Negative images are often considered more effective in swaying people than positive ones.
In fractious ecological policy debates, proponents often spend more energy demonizing their opponents than sticking to rational policy analysis. My experience is that such tactics are often effective in policy debates; many people are moved by negative arguments.
Consider salmon recovery in western North America. No one has ever argued that we ought to eradicate salmon. The conflict is over which of the myriad competing human priorities is most important — food, electricity, water, transportation, fishing, or a host of others. To label proponents of abundant electricity, efficient farming, cheap transportation, or consumptive fishing as “enemies of salmon” is unfair in policy debates. Rather, each policy choice or priority tends to constrain others.
Those of us who provide information to help inform the participants involved in ecological policy debates need to be cognizant of and appreciate the importance of scientific information, but we also must recognize the reality that scientific information is just one element in complex political deliberations in a democracy.