To the Editor:
President Obama has put climate change back on the national agenda, but actually doing something about it is famously difficult. This time will be no different if policy makers let the best become the enemy of the good.
Hoping for the best gets us in trouble in two ways. First, while science can make a strong case for starting now to control carbon dioxide and other gases that lead to climate change, it can’t yet say exactly how much to do when. Yet the game will be lost if we require that science nail down every uncertainty.
The second problem is that solving the climate problem requires changing a vast energy infrastructure on a global scale. The scope and scale of this challenge far exceed any other environmental problem we’ve seen before. It’s no surprise that many existing government rules and institutions aren’t up to the job of managing climate policy.
Rather than waiting for settled science and perfected institutions, today’s policy should aggressively promote steps that will make useful progress at low cost. Energy efficiency is the prime example; we know that we can use energy more efficiently, yet we don’t.
As highlighted by the American Academy report “Beyond Technology: Strengthening Energy Policy Through Social Science,” social scientists can help resolve this paradox, and so energy policy makers should incorporate the social sciences into their thinking. It could be as simple as writing a clear energy-efficiency label or as complex as productively engaging local citizens about a fracking project.
But it’s also essential to invest in understanding what policies and institutions must come into being to manage the climate problem over the long term. Our scientific establishment should encourage this new and exciting area of research.
ROBERT W. FRI
Bethesda, Md., April 1, 2013
The writer is chairman of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Alternative Energy Future project and a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future.