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Water politics when it rains…

August 31, 2010

A quick break in my dissertation hibernation to point out an interesting development in Australian water politics (e.g. here, and here). Brumby (Premier of Victoria) and Rann (Premier of South Australia) are both relaxing water restrictions, and now you can wash your car with a bucket. Coincidence? I think not. It’s all about politics and perception.

If you paint water restrictions as temporary hardships to be endured during a temporary condition such as a drought, then people will expect those restrictions to be lifted when things appear to be going better. We’ve had a lot of rain this year.

And the political pressure is worsened by the fact that desalination plants under construction in both states are proving extremely costly. As I have pointed out before, it is politically very difficult to argue for financial and practical sacrifice on water at the same time, especially when some are questioning whether desalination has turned out to be a costly overreaction. If you’re going to make me pay for water security through higher taxes and water prices, then I’m not as open to being told when and how to water my lawn. And maybe I’m not as open to voting for the party that is putting me in that position.

So, this raises the question about water politics: can we engineer our way to water security through desalination, and ALSO promote water efficiency?

Maybe, but the current approach doesn’t seem to be working out so well.

I’ll be back to blogging more regularly in November. See you then!

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Provocation and Debate

July 1, 2010

At a big-giant-conference such as this one, I find that I’m drawn to the more subversive presentations. For example, one of the few things that is keeping me from ditching the last session and going to the beach is this provocative title:

Circling from Virtuous to Vicious: How the IPCC stopped helping and began hindering adaptive behaviour.

Ann Henderson-Sellers of Macquarie University really delivered a barn burner with this one. I found myself swinging violently back and forth between vehement agreement and vehement disagreement. YES we really do need to stop focusing on uncertainty! YES, we need to ditch the IPCC, which assumes we need a consensus on facts to precede policy decisions. NO, there is no reason to assume that climate change should be the top priority for international politics (what a ridiculous assertion!). Good times.

Another really interesting one yesterday called into question our assumptions about the nature of migration. Francois Gemenne of Sciences Po Paris presented the results of a very ambitious global study under the title:

Migration doesn’t have to be a failure of adaptation. An escape from environmental determinism.

So many in the climate community are laboring under the assumption that migration is a last resort, to be undertaken only when the impacts get unbearably severe. And migration is painted as a security risk. What will we do with the hoards of environmental refugees crossing national borders and destabilizing the communities where they arrive? Gemenne argues convincingly that these assumptions are a bit naive. Migration is usually a response to insecurity–one which actually improves the security situation. Migration is usually within countries, and transnational migration is the exception. And migration requires resources. The poorest of the poor, and the most severely impacted generally cannot migrate, and are forced to stay in place.

At his plenary presentation on Tuesday, Mark Howden dangled some provocative ideas in front of the crowd. He suggested, for example, that we need to abandon our climate centric view of adaptation, and move toward a decision centric model. Understand the decisions people are making first, and then shape your science around that. Amen! He also suggested that our Panglossian view of the climate – our insistence that any deviation from the norm will be entirely negative – has alienated us from those we are seeking to help out. We need to find more positive and optimistic ways of talking about climate change. Focus on the opportunities. This was clearly not something that everyone in the room agreed with!

It’s great to see these assumptions challenged, even if it doesn’t make the issue any simpler. And it’s great to get some conflict and debate at a conference, especially after a couple days of soul-sucking fluorescent conference rooms! As Ann Henderson-Sellers said at the beginning of her talk in this last session of the week, “by this point everyone’s over it!” Time to head home.

Big Conference; small fish

June 29, 2010

“I hope you’re enjoying it!”

These were Penny Wong’s opening words of encouragement to the staff and participants in Australia’s National Climate Change Adaptation Research Conference. Penny Wong is the minister of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, and she was referring to the fact that her department is responsible for funding one of the key organizers of this conference, the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility (NCCARF). To be honest, her words sounded disinterested and patronizing. Less like a champion of important work, and more like your aunt casually mentioning that sweater she knitted for you last Christmas.

And the rest of Wong’s address, which opened this Conference on Adaptation Futures, pretty much confirmed to a room of almost 1000 adaptation researchers that in the big political game of climate change, climate adaptation is a small fish at best. Adaptation research barely rated a mention in the 20 minute speech, which focused mostly on scoring political points and underscoring the scientific consensus on climate change.

Apparently in Penny Wong’s world that’s what science is for: building consensus and convincing people of facts. It’s hard to see where adaptation research fits into a mental model like that.

It’s too bad. Personally, I think adaptation research is about helping people do things. It’s not necessarily about convincing them, and it is not premised on the (false) idea that once we all agree on what is happening in the world, the solutions will come easily. Today I’ve seen some great examples of work that embraces complexity, acknowledges values, and honors many different kinds of knowledge. It is encouraging to see this, but it’s too bad PM Wong couldn’t stick around to see it for herself.

Virtual Poster Session!

June 29, 2010

I’m at the a big conference on climate adaptation. The full title is a bit much, but for the sake of formality, here you go:

2010 International Climate Adaptation Conference

Climate Adaptation Futures

Preparing for the unavoidable impacts of climate change

I’ll be chiming in here with thoughts about the goings on. Also, I prepared a poster for this conference and have just learned that my allotted poster time is day 3, from 7:30-8:30am! Not exactly a high traffic moment! If you’re not at the conference, or you just don’t relish the idea of pre-dawn poster perusal, just click to… Read more…

When Scientists Star in Political Theater

June 22, 2010

There’s some discussion on Praj’s Blog about what we should expect from Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize winning Secretary of Energy, who at Obama’s bidding has swooped in to solve the Gulf Oil problem. I’m glad Praj posted this critique, because it raises a frustration I feel every time I hear someone reporting on this story. Does a Nobel Prize winning physicist possess any special ability to come up with a solution to this problem? I would say no.

Sending Chu down to the Gulf to roll up his sleeves and solve this thing is political theater, period. It’s no different from Obama going down there. Political theater is useful to the Obama administration, and it might even be helpful to the people down there in certain ways. But let’s not kid ourselves about the reasons for it.

The Obama Administration is taking advantage of the myth of the heroic individual scientist–of the idea that scientists are different kinds of people. (See this editorial by Bruce Alberts for an example of such silliness, and then be sure to read the rebuttal)

Some of the argument has focused on whether Chu would be better than other non-experts. Well, Chu is probably better equipped than, say, Toni Morrison (another Nobel winner) or Joe the Plumber, but that’s not really the point, is it? It’s not a question of “experts or non-experts?” It’s “which experts?”

I think that based on what we know about experts dealing with complex systems, Chu is unlikely to be very helpful, compared with other experts. Good solutions are likely to come from people who not only have vast knowledge of these complex technologies, but also have enough experience with them (i.e. decades) that they understand them intuitively.

Who knows, maybe Chu is a phenomenal team leader, or has some uncanny ability to get other people to think outside of the box or something. But none of that has anything to do with trapping atoms with lasers. It’s social skills and management. But you don’t hear anyone talking about that. It’s all about the Nobel Prize.

An alcoholic policy decision?

June 19, 2010

While dissertating this fine morning, I came across a gem of a quotation, which I felt like sharing:

Language invites the confusion of supposing that a policy decision about science is (or should be) a scientific policy decision, and that what scientists do must be science. But a policy decision about science is no more a scientific policy decision than a policy decision about alcohol is an alcoholic policy decision. Indeed, much of what scientists do is not science at all. They make breakfast, walk the dog, teach students, fix lab equipment, write grant proposals, review manuscripts, gossip about their colleagues, and so on. These days scientists are called upon to study and render opinions about many problems, but those problems are not thereby transformed into scientific problems. Most of the problems in this book have been studied by scientists and have important scientific dimensions, but they are not scientific problems, and there is little reason to suppose that science provides the right instruments for making sound decisions in these cases. … What scientists know isn’t always relevant to decision making, and what is relevant to decision making isn’t always what scientists know.

That’s from Dale Jamieson’s essay in this book about prediction.

Who fuels the cycle?

June 16, 2010

I have a comment featured on the Daily Dish (thanks Andrew!). This all began when the Dish highlighted a Wired article in which Jonah Lehrer questioned our faith in reductionist, technological solutions:

Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, once divided the world into two categories: clocks and clouds. Clocks are neat, orderly systems that can be solved through reduction; clouds are an epistemic mess, “highly irregular, disorderly, and more or less unpredictable.” The mistake of modern science is to pretend that everything is a clock, which is why we get seduced again and again by the false promises of brain scanners and gene sequencers. We want to believe we will understand nature if we find the exact right tool to cut its joints. But that approach is doomed to failure. We live in a universe not of clocks but of clouds.

The scientist who responded, actually did a good job of demonstrating Leher’s point: scientists are overconfident in their ability to solve problems with the clocks approach. He or she claimed that if we are disappointed with scientific progress, we should blame the media, not science, for exaggerating expectations. Of course, this gets directly at the topic we discussed earlier this week. I responded:

Sure, the media play their part in the “cycle of anticipation and disappointment” with science, but scientists profit from it immensely as well. The recent New York Times article on the Human Genome Project’s failure to produce miracle cures demonstrates the “disappointment” part of the cycle. But it also points out the ways in which scientists themselves were fueling the anticipation with grandiose promises of miraculous advances in medicine. Blaming the media for this cycle is totally naive.

There are two interpretations of those promises made by scientists, and they are both right. First, they are just part of the political game of science. To attract resources you need to show the potential public value of the work, even if the claims are a bit flimsy. Second, our tendency to accept those claims stems from our overriding faith in the ability of science and technology to solve our problems, no matter how complex. That is exactly what Lehrer was getting at in the first place. We may not like it, but technocratic approaches using reductionist science aren’t cut out for cloud type problems, especially those with a strong social component (health, climate change, energy, etc).