As the “energy sprawl” idea has been discussed and debated in the media, I (one of the paper’s co-authors) have grown a thick skin against criticism. Perhaps the harshest piece of invective, however, still bothers me: the criticism by Matt Wasson in the Huffington Post.
The factual criticisms Matt makes aren’t that troublesome to me, and I can understand his perspective as someone who works to minimize the impact of coal mining on the environment. Matt makes the point that an acre of coal mining is not necessarily the same biodiversity impact as an acre with wind turbines, a point we totally agree with (that’s why we made it in the original paper!). And of course our one measure of land-use can’t capture all of the myriad ways energy production affects the environment; it was never meant to.
What bothers me is the accusation that my scientific paper is “poisoning” the public debate about climate change and energy policy. Indeed, Matt advocates “burning” his post (and perhaps my paper), as if retaining memory of energy sprawl issues was morally corrupting. What does this say about the way we today regard the meaning and responsibility of science to advocacy…and the fragility of public discourse?
I suspect similar criticism will be made of the recent paper by Searchinger and others in Science, which makes the point (intellectually related to the energy sprawl issue) that if land-use change for energy production is not accounted for in climate change policy, extra carbon could be released. From a certain perspective, Searchinger’s article is inconvenient for environmental NGOs just as much as my paper is…if not more so.
But what an anemic view of democracy! As if a scientific paper which complicates the advocacy position of environmentalists is somehow morally equivalent to the myth of death panels hidden in the health care bill! Matt’s title reflects a misunderstanding of science’s relationship to the environmental movement. It is not the job of scientists to produce papers that reinforce a preconceived advocacy position. Rather, it is the job of scientists to lay the facts on the table, so those facts can inform advocacy.
To be sure, any one scientific paper can be interpreted different ways be different actors. Different environmental NGOs may have different positions on what Searchinger’s article means for their advocacy on energy policy, for example, but they can still acknowledge that there is a scientific issue there to consider.
And what an anemic view of the media! As if the political discussion about climate change is so fragile that our messaging must be simple and without nuance! I think this is a very TV-era mentality, where infrequent, carefully-worded press releases could control the public debate. While some of that phenomenon still exists, in a world where thousands of scientists and tens of thousands of activists and lobbyists work on climate change issues, it strikes me as a bit naïve.
I would rather make sure that the scientific facts are out there, and then trust in the marketplace of ideas to sort out over the long term what is important and what is not.