Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Overcoming Partisanship Through Dialogue?

In the lead-up to the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the divisions in this country are in the news.  An article this morning in the Washington Post noted that the appointees to the Supreme Court by President George W. Bush vote very similarly to one another, as do President Obama’s appointees.  An interesting opinion piece in yesterday's Tuscon Citizen reflected upon how Representatives Gabriel Giffords and Michele Bachman (mentioned in Brigham’s post earlier today for her calls to abolish the EPA) have, together with former-Governor Sarah Palin, changed the political landscape for women-- without mention of their widely divergent views on environmental and energy issues.

All this takes place as June comes to a close, which will bring with it a new monthly mean from the Mauna Lau observatory of carbon dioxide atmospheric concentrations.  The concentrations have been steadily rising—May 2011 was 394.16 parts per million, well above the 350 parts per million that leading climate change scientists say we should stay below to minimize risks.

This combination makes me reflect upon one a conversation I had with a climate skeptic shortly before moving from rural Virginia last year.  He started the nearly hour-long conversation in a somewhat combative posture, until I started talking about the nuances of climate science.  I explained that there’s a lot of certainty about the big picture, but greater uncertainties (both because of less research and because prediction is harder) about the here and now.  Once I did that, he became open to talking about the question I think is most crucial—regardless of one’s perspective on climate change science, what should we do in response to the risks?  

I continue to believe that the vast majority of people in this country are not so divided in response to that question if we can get to it and that “clean energy” paired with “green jobs” is probably the most politically viable way of getting there right now.  However, the “can we get to it” problem becomes ever harder in the current partisan environment. Recent polling data suggests the U.S. public has become less certain about climate change even as scientific consensus solidifies.  And Doug Kysar wrote an interesting reflection on the way in which climate change science was portrayed in the AEP v. Connecticut opinion.

How do we encourage thoughtful dialogue about science and complex environmental problems?  How do we ensure that lawyers and policymakers have enough exposure to science that they feel comfortable having nuanced conversations about it?   We need to somehow address these issues even as the latest presidential election cycle heats up.

Hari Osofsky

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