Forever Ours: The Challenge of Long-Lived Environmental Problems
November 5, 2012
Speaker: Molly Macauley, Vice President for Research and Senior Fellow, Resources for the Future
This seminar will focus on long-lasting environmental problems,T including the presence of long-lived pharmaceutical residues in air, water and soil; management of nuclear waste and industrial site contamination; sequestration of carbon dioxide; and the accumulation of space debris. Economically feasible and effective technological solutions abound in many of these examples, but failure often rests with institutions and decision-making. Are current and future generations destined to live with these problems or could there be new, creative approaches to managing these actual or perceived long-term threats?
Please click here for a copy of Dr. Macauley's Biography
Video will appear here.
Molly Macauley: Malka, thanks very much. It's a tremendous honor to be here. I've been looking forward to it. And it was good to see Olivia and meet Joel, and thank you all for coming. In the spirit of a seminar I want to pose a question, and it's a question specifically for policy analysts, but I think it also draws heavily from the kind of expertise and leadership that the Department of Interior offers to this nation and to the world.I want to raise the question, offer a couple of perspectives on why I think it's a consequential question, and then conclude with some ideas for how one might answer the question. But I don't have all the answers, so I want to treat this as a seminar.The question is this, is there a class of problems which we've typically addressed in this country and elsewhere as one-off concerns or singular case studies? But could we conceive of them as a class of problems distinguished by a common characteristic, what I call "forever ours" problems?I'll argue that I think we do have a class of problems called "forever ours," and I think it's a class of problems that, as a society, we are least good at addressing. After a couple of examples, I'll suggest why these are grand challenges for physical scientists, social scientists and decision makers. Let me illustrate, discuss, and then wrap up with some ideas and further questions.Do we have a problem, and think about this list. It's illustrative. It's not comprehensive, but it's to exemplify. The presence of, for example, pharmaceutical residues in the air, water and soil. Trace amounts, to be sure, but accumulative over time. Simply from that this is expired or no longer used in our medicine cabinets, so accumulating over time.The management of nuclear waste, for which peak radiation dosages from storage are modeled at 300,000 years. You may remember the US Environmental Protection Agency originally proposed to set a radiation standard for Yucca Mountain for 10,000 years. The National Academy of Sciences said there was no scientific basis for stopping at 10,000 years, and encouraged the community to think about the peak hazard, which might emerge hundreds of thousands of years later.Another example, some long lived and accumulative soil and weather contamination at industrial and other sites. The accumulation of atmosphere concentrations of greenhouse gases, some of which have resonant times in the atmosphere of a hundred years or more.Space debris, which is a long-lived and self-propagating kind of problem, depending on orbital altitude of the debris and other parameters. Of course, the Interior Department's world-famous Landsat satellite mission must think about debris. Not adding to it, and not being subject to it to harm it on orbit. Then some may add something like loss of biodiversity.I'm suggesting a set of problems traditionally treated as singular by experts and policy makers, but they have something in common. It's this kind of long-lived potential for environmental harm, what I call "forever ours" problems.Now, a couple of footnotes. I've listed environmental kinds of problems, but there are other long-term, consequential decisions that we have to make. Certainly, the Sandy storm has reminded us of the problem of investing in long-lived infrastructure. We've got the challenge of preventative health care, and the extent to which folks adequately take steps to prevent something in the future. The problem of disease-resistant antibiotics, fundamental underinvestment, or tendency to under-invest in basic research.There's a whole set of problems, some of which are environmental, some of which are less so, but they have the problem of incurring costs today and benefits tomorrow. They're very long-lived in the kind of tools and decisions that we have to think about in addressing these.The second of my footnotes -- the first one being there are more than just environmental problems that have this "forever ours" characteristic -- the second one is I want to say I'm not a tree hugger, I'm an economist. I acknowledge that all of the problems I've indicated, whether it's pharmaceutical residues, nuclear waste, space debris, greenhouse gases, all of these are associated with fundamental sectors of our economy that are critical for our health and welfare. Whether it's pharmaceuticals, energy, transportation, aerospace, health care, these are very large economically. They are very important for the quality of life.What the problem is, is the manageable amount of harm, subject to the fact that incurring the harm is usually bringing us very important benefits. In the words of an economist, it's one of balancing bads, assuming there's a livable amount of bad. But what is that amount? For long-lived problems, that can be very difficult to ascertain. That was the second footnote.The third footnote is simply that as human beings, we take risk every day, so this is not an argument for no risk. Every time we run a red light, or not use our seat belt, or cross not at an intersection, there's a certain amount of risk that we can tolerate as individuals. My concern is in thinking about long lived problems, it gets very complicated for reasons that I'll mention.I think we're not as good at this as a society. We have trouble, many would argue, in our own retirement planning, with respect to likelihood of illness, planning for our children and our children's children and so forth. Anything that requires us to think about the future in today's terms is very, very difficult for many reasons.Fundamentally when I think about the lack of institutions, certainly in our government structure in the United States for addressing long lived problems, at some fundamental level I'm not surprised. Because do you know what the average life expectancy of a white male child at birth was at the time of the founding fathers? When our executive branch, our judicial branch and our legislative branches were set up by the founding fathers, the life expectancy of a white male child at birth was 35 years.Aside perhaps from the judicial branch, the provision for thinking about long term benefits and costs, long term investment, the long term nature of that which makes our modern society really click, in a sense it was a little bit outside the way of thinking of the founding fathers in the initial establishment of our three branches of government.That's not to say they didn't think about R and D. George Washington was well known for being an inventor in his own right, but I'm distinguishing that a little bit from these kinds of forever ours problems that I want to talk about, which are very much a phenomenon of contemporary society.I want to move then to what tools we have to address these kinds of problems, and ask are these tools adequate? Then ask what happens when circumstances change for all of these when we get new engineering information, new scientific information? Or a change in how people think about these, maybe a cultural or social shift?How can new information of these kinds be brought to bear on decisions that have long term consequences? Or are we and future generations really destined to live with maybe severe enduring consequences? If there is a class of problems, given their foreverness, are there some new ways of thinking and acting that, as analysts and decision makers here in this room, we can think about?The first three tools that immediately come to mind are things about the long lived and uncertain properties of these kinds of situations. Whenever we're trying to think about the future in terms of today, just like interest rates on a savings account, there's something that is fundamental to the economist tool kit, and that's discounting. That's adjusting tomorrow for today, in some kind of a usually quantitative measure.Now, we seem very comfortable, many of us, at least in old fashioned days, taking out a 30 year mortgage for a home purchase. It sort of suggests at some level for that type of purchase, for that type of commodity, we have a tradition in much of this nation for a 30 year mortgage kind of thinking.Thirty years out, for some of these maybe we're a little bit comfortable thinking. Thirty years out. Some experts question whether we can go out as many as 50 years or so, although others question the salience of thinking that long term. Remember, this forever ours class of problems, these have consequences well beyond 30 or 50 years.Others assume that we should just discount the future based at the economic rate of growth, measures of GDP on an annual basis, a per capita measure. It's widely reported, and it's a measure of how well off we are. The problem with that is the present cost of an infinite stream of future costs is itself infinite.Others have said that the way we think about the future can change over time. There's nonlinearity in how we think about the future, depending on what it is we're thinking about in the future. Likening the purchase of a home to thinking about pharmaceutical residue may suggest that there's some fundamentally different way in how we discount one, compared with the other.Some have said there are things like constant rates, exponential rates, quasi hyperbolic rates. This is a line of research, maybe some of you are familiar with it trying to understand a little better about how people like us think about the future in different situations.There's a dispute that these rates may change over time. Suppose we came out with a way of thinking about the future today, today, as a set of decision makers right now, if this may well change, tomorrow with a different set of decision makers in this room.Then lastly, some people reject this outright. It's just inappropriate to try to do any kind of quantitative adjusting when one is talking about things as consequential as things that can harm the environment. Just reject it out of hand if it has to do with the environment, health, safety or livelihood.Now, it's interesting, and again, I believe the Department of the Interior was at the table in an interagency exercise that began in 2010 to think about discounting for the future, the very far future, in order to make regulatory decisions today. This had to do with the damages associated with one more unit of CO2 with respect to agriculture and public health and sea level rise.This was an inter-agency exercise starting in 2010 known as the social cost of carbon. I believe it included the Department of Energy, EPA, Department of Transportation, some 14 different agencies. It had to come up with this dollar-denominated measure of damages from one more unit or ton of CO2 in the atmosphere with respect to agriculture and other damages.The reason this dollar-denominated figure had to come out was the Supreme Court had said to the EPA "You'll think about whether greenhouse gasses are deleterious to human health."The inter-agency, what became to be known as the social cost of carbon, I think it's around 23, 24, 25 dollars per ton of CO2, is a dollar-denominated value. But the report on the social cost of carbon had large tables showing how that number changes with different discount rates. The report acknowledged the challenge of choosing the discount rate, which is very consequential because, thank you so much, Malcolm, these dollars per extra ton of carbon, it varies significantly depending on the interest rate.But this dollar-denominated damage measure has now been used in over 22 rule makings, everything from new boiler standards to fuel efficiencies in automobiles. But it did require, as the report points out very clearly, we're making some heroic assumptions about how people think about the future with respect to today.I also mentioned that I know there are different views on whether climate is changing. My point is simply that a set of decisions had to be made. This is what the interagency findings were like and they're now being used, again, in the statutes and in regulations currently governing.There is also the problem of uncertainty. Again, many in this room may be familiar with some of the new tools and technologies for thinking about how people think about uncertainty. Some of the buzz words for the latest methodologies here are things like structured expert judgment, high dimensional dependence modeling, expert elicitation, Bayesian belief nets.These are ways of characterizing that which we are uncertain about by calling together groups of experts and then statistically framing their answers in highly rigorous, statistically based ways. These are wholly new tools and methodologies that obviously weren't around many, many years ago, so they weren't coloring our mindset of addressing long term issues.They are new tools that are being used, and one can ask, "Can they play an even greater role in helping us to think through some of these issues? To what extent do they admit in their methodological processes new information, as time elapses and we have new engineering, scientific or other changes in fundamental understanding?"You may know about a principle called the precautionary principle. This is the third of the three tools that I'm mentioning, just to illustrate what's in our toolkit for thinking about forever ours problems. Discounting the tools of uncertainty, and then this idea of a precautionary principle, which is a preference for not allowing actions if risks are uncertain at all.On some version of the precautionary principle is embodied in the United Nations framework convention on climate change, the convention on biological diversity. It's employed in some places in the European Union. Depending on how one thinks about it as an analyst, it either seems to make sense, or for others, it really doesn't sit very well with them at all. It's seen as antithetical to innovation and new technology, et cetera, et cetera, because it is so heavily based on, if we don't know, let's not do it at all. Very much a precautionary principle.Very many differences in opinion about that. Nonetheless, it embodies its own set of thinking, its own methodologies, and it also is in our arsenal of tools to be brought to bear on these long lived problems, and the risks and uncertainties that surround them.Now, a word or two about technology. Because another way of thinking about these is, in a way let's not worry about them too much, because humans have an amazing capacity to adapt and to innovate. A long term problem, even 300,000 years from now in the case of nuclear waste storage, surely our kids or their kids or their kids, they're going to be smart and figure out ways to do this.It's really not a long problem. We can shorten it into maybe generations at a minimum, and maybe even shorter time spans. Especially because we're so creative and so innovative, and I agree with that to some extent.I keep this article, it's from 2007, December 10th issue of "The Economist" magazine. It was an article titled "Hunter Gatherers, Noble or Savage? The era of the hunter gatherer was not the social and environmental Eden that some suggest." It went on to trace demographic pressure, the development of better weapons to catch smaller, faster prey, enabling humankind to survive at higher densities.It says, "The spear throwing stick was invented 18,000 years ago as a response to a Malthusian crisis." The article continues, "Incessant innovation is a characteristic of human beings. Agriculture, the domestication of animals and plants, this must be seen in the context of progressive change."It goes on to say, "The Internet and the mobile phone were in some vague sense almost predestined 50,000 years ago to appear eventually." It concludes, "There's a modern moral in this story. We have been creating ecological crises for ourselves and our habitats for tens of thousands of years, but we've been solving them, too. When we eventually reverse the buildup in carbon dioxide, for example," the article concludes, "there will be another issue waiting for us."I wanted to dwell...I mean, I'm quoting from that article. It's not the most elegant treatment of the role of innovation and technological change, but I think it's interesting to say the Internet and the mobile phone were in some sense destined to happen even 50,000 years ago. I think that's really worth pondering, is the role of innovation in technology.And if you like that story, it's important then to think, what do we have in our nation and around the world to preserve the spirit of innovation? Does our patent system work? Is it the proper reward for new ways of thinking? And that takes us off into a whole other tangent, but perhaps a very relevant one, about how we preserve the freedom to explore, to make mistakes, to innovate, and make sure that our kids and their kids and their kids always have that spirit of inquiry. But I do think it's a very important part of the forever ours kind of problem.But even then, suppose we have this class of problems, and we anticipate there will be technological solutions at some point. And we've got some tools of an economist-discounting. We debate the precautionary principle. We have the new ways of thinking about uncertainty. And we bring experts together and say, "In your wisest wisdom, help us think about this problem." I still think we've got a fundamental challenge, and you're probably always light years ahead of me in realizing what it is, but it's our institutions. And it's how our decision-makers think.Now the Founding Fathers put in rotation in office. And this makes our policymakers myopically but rationally very shortsighted. It's just the nature of the limited terms in office that the Founding Fathers really cherished. So some have asked, and I'm not the first one, but I was delighted to see that this debate had taken place, and I don't think it's concluded, about whether we need, and here's where I want to go with this discussion, could you envision us needing something like a Federal Reserve Board, which, remember, is thought to be nonpolitical, for science and technology?Or a Supreme Court, which again, arguably, is...a lifetime appointment, to cast aside all the other biases, and I agree there are imperfections in our Federal Reserve Board and our Supreme Court, but the idea is to endow a set of wise people, insulated a bit from political processes, and entrust them with making consequential decisions and admitting new evidence through hearings and discussion when things change.So could we use a Federal Reserve Board for science and technology, or a Supreme Court for intergenerational resource allocation-something like that, with appointments for a long time, if not for life, evidence heard and decisions made on the basis of fact and reasoned argument, and adjusted in light of new information?Now, it turns out, and perhaps a lot of you know about this, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a group of very distinguished physicists, engineers, don't know if they had any social scientists. That might have been an oversight.But in any event, this group of [inaudible 0:22:22] ways to assess and manage health, safety and environmental risk. And the proposal was named the Science Court by the media. It would air opposing viewpoints publicly before an independent, neutral and technically expert panel of scientists. And I have some notes here and that's what I'm reading about.The concept was widely discussed, including a task force in President Ford's advisory group on, and the name of the group was Anticipated Advances in Science and Technology. And it met from 1975 to 1976. Members included Arthur Kantrowitz, who was a physicist and an engineer, Donald Kennedy, perhaps some of you know Donald Kennedy, and a number of really notable science leaders at the time.Here's what the task force found, and I quote. They said, they reported, "There are many cases in which technical experts disagree on scientific facts that are relevant to important public decisions. Nuclear power, disturbances to the ozone layer, and food additives are recent examples." Again, this was in the mid-1970s."As a result, there's a pressing need to find better methods for resolving factual disputes to provide a sounder basis for public decisions. The basic mechanism proposed here is an adversary hearing, open to the public, governed by disinterested referee, in which expert proponents of the opposing scientific positions argue their cases before a panel of scientists and judges. The judges themselves will be established experts."But the report continued. "The proposed Science Court is to be concerned solely with questions of scientific facts. It will leave social value questions, the ultimate policy decisions, to the normal decision making apparatus of our society, namely, the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government as well as popular referenda."Then the report continued to describe a protocol for selecting issues that would be heard by the Science Court, sources of funding for the court, selection of advocate judges and referees. The primary results were to be a series of factual statements of two types: those not challenged, and those that are challenged and qualified with statements about probability, validity, and margins of errors.And an indirect outcome was to be identification of where scientific knowledge exists and where it does not. Then, from this, a suggestion for where new research had to take place.It also pointed out in just one sentence in a 10 page document, quote: "In almost all cases, the boundary between knowledge and ignorance will continuously shift. New visions to take account of new knowledge may have to be made frequently when issues of great national importance are at stake."The Science Court was discussed, as I said, this was a report from President Ford's advisory group. And from what I understand, it didn't really advance much farther than being discussed rather widely in the newspapers.Where I work at Resources for the Future, our president is Phil Sharp. And Phil was a very long term member of congress. So I talked with Phil. I've talked with Phil a lot about forever ours problems and the institutional incapacity that I see to address them in a systematic way.He agrees that this is a very hard problem. He also said that you might think about the role of sunset provisions when you're thinking about these kinds of long lived problems.Now, of course, sunset provisions are sometimes written into law to suggest a time at which a law expires unless the congress decides to renew it. So we've had them in the US Patriot Act which had some temporary provisions for wiretapping. And then a sunset date at which those expire unless congress deems it necessary to continue them or perhaps amend them and put a new version in pace. And we've had them in budget acts for taxes and subsidies with these sunset provisions.A lot of times sunset provisions engender interest groups that work very hard to keep the provision there. But Phil was suggesting that if you've got long lived problems and you need a way to make a decision now, but you need to legislate a capacity to revisit that decision, that this often used mechanism of sunset like devices could be a part of the decision making process for long lived environmental problems. And give us dates by which we do hear anew the new information, the new evidence, and reconsider and move forward.If you are also an economist you're probably thinking about a couple of things which I didn't mention, so let me mention them now.What about price signals, taxes, for example, to tweak? Say we had a carbon tax. As we monitor the progress towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we look at the tax revenues. We look at the effect it's had on energy and electricity and consumers and transportation. Arguably through the tax code we could tweak up or down these price signals, and therefore sort of work our way through these kinds of long lived problems through the normal price signals that are adjusted by policy makers.Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz is a strong believer in natural capital accounting. So we would make specific provision in our income accounts for environmental attributes, forest, trees etc. So we have a standardized accounting method that also enables us to track and measure what's happening to, particularly in his case, our natural capital or our ecological wealth.If we're not measuring it it's hard to track it, he would argue and others might agree, through any policy course of action we may take. And I think he, in particular, would find for long lived kinds of activities that effect conservation and preservation and our stock and flow of natural capital. If it's not being fundamentally measured and tracked on a periodic basis, we really won't know very easily what is happening.The third thing that I think I should probably mention is private sector. The incentive we have, through insurance mechanisms already, to think a little bit longer term, through contracts and liability provisions.One could argue whether these are suitably strong or even desirable for truly long-lived environmental problems, but the private sector does think about managing risk with financially rigorous, statistically-quantified kinds of ways. It is arguably, a part of the portfolio that would be part of how we think about these problems.To sum up, we have a set of problems that are traditionally treated as somewhat singular case studies, even our institutions deal independently a bit with these. Do they constitute a class of problems? If so, what are the tools we have? What are the limits of those tools?Fundamentally, can we re-organize a bit as a society to think of a class of problems and address them in a systematic way? Something like a science court or not.Lastly, what roles you see for price signals and the innovative capacity of the human spirit. We don't worry about these quite so much because there will be solutions and we will be able to conserve and protect and sustain for the subsequent generations.Forever ours problems, a long-lived set of issues. Interestingly, I think, all of my examples intersect, at least in part, with the Department of Interior, so it's tremendously fun to be here. I look forward to your thoughts, your push-back, etc.Malka, thanks.[applause]Malka: Any questions from the room?Joel: Thanks, Molly. Yeah, it's working. Thanks, that's a fascinating talk. Thanks for coming to speak with us. I do think climate change opens the door for this class of problems, but where I tend to go is, on this idea of the science court.When I talk with my science colleagues in the UK, they say, "Why is it that people just don't trust the scientists in America? What's going on there? Our National Academy is known as having a last word on science matters."It's eroding a little bit over time, but certainly much more so than here. If that's a fundamental problem in the States, and we have our National Academy, which in theory, has that last word, is there something that needs to be done more at the populace level to change the way we think about science?Will imposing a structure like that amplify the division between how people think about science and the structures that government has created to support that?Molly: I'd be interested Joel, what the UK, your colleagues there, what they say about their system because I'm always eager to learn how others think about this. That would be one thing I'd like to know more about.I think you're raising a number of questions, one about the perceived credibility of scientists, certainly in this country. The role of the National Academy of Sciences. Remember, we used to have an Office of Technology Assessment, which was a branch of Congress. Arguably, one could probably find them addressing a lot of these issues, too, if it were still operating.The credibility of scientists is an interesting problem. I don't know how new it is, but it certainly seems rampant in the media, especially on the topic of a changing climate, but also on the case of nuclear waste.The National Academy of Sciences. To the extent it, like the National Science Foundation, is trying to bring more interdisciplinary panels of experts together rather than its own stovepipe, which both NAS and NFS have traditionally maintained.I think these problems are inherently interdisciplinary, and I think they need social scientists. NAS and NSF are moving in that direction, but they need to move faster.Lastly, do any of these indict the value of a science court? So long as it is meant to hear, in a courtroom-like sense of that, competing arguments, I don't see how it really differs from the idea of the Supreme Court, which adjudicates issues of critical importance for this country -- very sensitive issues, sometimes -- and competing perspectives in the attorneys presenting the scientific information or other fact-based arguments.You do, at the end of the day, have a body of arguably independent thinkers who have taken the oath to act in the interest of the country. They will revisit. The arguments presented are often... The findings may not be what some of us would want to hear, but it is a provision for an airing in a systemic way for consequential decisions.I haven't yet found an argument why decisions of consequence for the environment should be treated any differently than decisions of consequence for society. Of course, the Supreme Court does sometimes rule on the environment, as it did in the endangerment finding for [inaudible 0:34:22] .I'm still thinking the science court has a role to play. It has imperfections, as does the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, but I think it would have more visibility. Maybe it would offer something different from the NAS, I think, or from OTA.Does the UK do something different? When your colleagues there ask you this question, are they...?Joel: They talk about their national [inaudible 0:34:48] maybe in general it happens to work, and it's been relatively functional for them. That's their perception. I think a lot of decision makers may not feel the same way. They may ignore the input from those folks, but they do sense that they have the last word on science matters, regardless of how it's used.Molly: I think our agencies, with the stewardship of Environmental and Natural Resources...so Interior, EPA, NOAA, Department of Commerce. The role that the scientific research and information embodied in those agencies, which often have some of the best and the brightest, how their science could also be presented in a neutral way, which is important for serving the public from a federal agency -- that would need to be figured in as well.I don't think that the science court, as envisioned in the '70s report, thought about that very clearly. A lot of our talent resides in our public institutions, in our science parts of these institutions.Man: The UK, I think, has something called the "Foresight Group." I think that used to be attached to the Cabinet or something like that. I think that was continued even when Cameron came in. That was very much like an OTA.Molly: Foresight Group.Man: Yeah, something like that, I'm not 100 percent confident of the group. It's "Foresight" something or the other.Molly: Thank you. I'll look into that.Man: I think one of the major problems is that institutions, regardless of what is the intent of setting them up, will over time slowly degenerate -- maybe that's the pessimist in me -- because they're, after all, made up of human beings. And that human beings, essentially are... Maybe "corruptible" is too strong a word, but they do degenerate.I think institutions are likely to end up doing the same thing, perhaps for slightly different reasons, not necessarily at the same rate. I think that's a real problem, especially if you are taking a look at a long-term problem. How can you guarantee...? Maybe "guarantee" is the wrong word. I think one should foresee that those institutions will also get degraded over time.Molly: Institutions also get constituencies and stakeholders in and of themselves. One thing I do notice...and that could be perhaps alleviated through some consistently defined forum for discussion of these kinds of issues.The way in which some of our methodological tools for thinking about uncertainty and risk advanced rather rapidly in the field of nuclear sciences and engineering, and didn't in application to other risk kinds of activities, especially environmental issues.Now, that's being alleviated as the scholars who led that in the nuclear domain are working, co-authoring, collaborating, and so forth. What I have seen is some of these tools and techniques. Discussion advances faster sometimes in a certain field for whatever reason, but the other fields need to learn from that as well.Maybe what I'm looking for is a capacity for discourse among experts so that we all benefit the same as new tools advance. I'm thinking especially in Bayesian belief nets and expert structure judgment, much of which grew up in the nuclear domain, and is only now being exported to our other domains. It's very relevant and useful.So, some way of having a consistent discourse, perhaps with a referee, for how we think about these kinds of problems. At a minimum, we need to move in that direction. That could be filled by NAS or NSF, et cetera. Or inter-agency, perhaps.But still, the fundamental decision making of how we think about long-lived problems and do the discounting, et cetera. We have a gap in this nation. We really do. Is it one we just should live with and work our way through, or not? That's the fundamental question that I've been struggling with. I really, really do appreciate any thoughts you have. This is a really good discussion.Hand back there, OK.Moderator: We have a question from our folks on the Internet. How does one overcome the political nature of any human activity, including a science court? The interests of the judges, lawyers, witnesses, et cetera will all play a role.Molly: Absolutely. What can one say except that we're human beings needing to make decisions? We see those kinds of limits in our Supreme Court and our Federal Reserve Board of Governors, but unless we have really smart artificial intelligence that can flip the coin for us, I wonder. I think that's the best we can do.What I want to make sure is that we don't have bright people with good ideas whose perspectives aren't being heard. Whether they have methodologies and tools, they have no NSF interdisciplinary funding to bring those tools to other communities, it would be a real shame if we were overlooking opportunities to advance the state of the art.I think the microphone is coming your way from Malka. Thanks.Don Bonyevich: Hi, I'm Don Bonyevich. I'm on the economic analysis staff. You raised so many issues in your presentation, I almost was taking too many notes. It seems to me that you mentioned...it actually was this fear of the institutional capture. You didn't actually use those terms, but I think that's what you were talking about.If we create a science board, there's always a risk of it somehow taking on a life of its own, seeming to keep itself going by finding things to talk about, even when there may be nothing to talk about. As certain agencies seem to do, they never die.Also, when we talk about the future, it always seems those who talk about the future...we listen to those who have the loudest voices and claim the greatest certainty, when they may not be the people we should be listening to at all. Human beings, we love causes, so if we can find a cause...and the fear of the future in many ways is a great cause. Many things to fear that we should fear. All of this comes out of your talk, just leaves more questions.Molly: Thank you. This is the spirit of a seminar, I think. It seems to me we have a course of action, which is to keep going as we are with these kinds of problems, by which I mean they're handled largely by different agencies and different sets of domain experts.We do make progress, in the sense that we at least have social cost of carbon. In the report it said this is an imperfect measure. We need help thinking about it. If we're going down the wrong path, we can change it at some point. It's not out of the question to make some progress on these issues.The report was issued with full attention to all the shortcomings inherent in the problem, but we're already using it for regulatory decision-making with economic consequences.We want to make sure we're doing the best we can, because we do have to move ahead as a society. Your points...and you were very eloquent in listing them. I should be taking notes. Thank you. We'll exchange notes, maybe. OK, good.Moderator: We have another question from the folks on the Internet. How do you see the U.S. as able to come to an agreement to address environmental problems that have effects on our country as well as the world?Molly: Arguably, certainly space debris is one of those examples. Management of nuclear waste is an example. Greenhouse gas concentrations. Even pharmaceutical residue, arguably. It's a very good point, it's a very good point.I don't have an answer for that. I would imagine that our decisions always will figure into our international posture, how we're perceived as a nation, taking leadership on these issues, the extent to which they affect our trade policy, energy intensive manufacturing sectors.Certainly would be concerned about imposition of a carbon tax. Does it disadvantage them at the border? Do we export carbon emissions elsewhere if we take steps to reduce our own emissions? It's a very good point, a very good point.Mike Mottice: Hello. Mike Mottice with the Bureau of Land Management. I'm wondering about maybe a variation on the science court idea. We could more institutionalize a group like the National Academy of Science and give them some legal basis for existing. The determination they might make and the conclusions they might offer would carry some legal precedent.Instead of debating the same science issues over and over again in so many places in the court system, we could refer some of those science-based disputes to a group like the National Academy. Have their opinion be the precedent that the court refers to when they make their rulings on the countless lawsuits the department is engaged in, where science is a part but not the only part of the basis for the decision.Molly: I know the Academy's mission statement, I think, is advice to the nation. I think the Founding Fathers were very concerned about people with legislative power who hadn't been elected through some system. In providing advice and providing consequential advice, the Academy has a very important role.I would be surprised if it wanted more of a decision-making role, and I suspect the rest of us might be a little worried about that, since they're not elected. That might be some of the worries one would want to talk about.Moderator: We have another question from the Internet. Well. From the people on the Internet. This concerns how we...It's not really phrased as a question. How would we admit scientific data? How do you draw the borders around what is admitted to the discussion and what is left out of the discussion?Molly: How would we incorporate scientific data? Arguably, some of those data have uncertainty bounds, et cetera, and change with time. My simple analogy with the Supreme Court is, new data -- facts, in many cases, not data as we typically think of them -- are admitted through the rules of the judicial procedure. When new facts, new data come to light, decisions can be revisited. I was thinking nothing more eloquent than that at this point in my naive reasoning by analogy here.I would want new data to be admissible in this decision-making process, and I was looking for a more formal way to do it. Maybe sunset previsions give us a deadline by which to galvanize our scientific effort and say, "Hey, there's a sunset prevision coming up. Are we ready to share with the public new findings?"I think Joel had his hand up, too, Malka. Am I right? I don't mean to pick on you.Joel: [inaudible 0:47:09]Molly: Sure.Joel: I don't know much about the social cost of carbon. The situation right now, I know that there have been subsequent studies saying, "OK, they admitted there were these flaws. Well, we've resolved those flaws, now, and we have three times the cost. We think that that's the right way to go." Is there a mechanism for adjusting that?Molly: Is there a mechanism for adjusting that? That is a very, very good question. What we would be looking for was, was there something in the in the interagency report that said, "We will revisit this in two years?" I do not know the answer to that, but I know how to find out. I'll get back with you. That's a very, very good question.Malka: Did that answer your question, sir?Moderator: From the folks of the Internet, we have this question. How do you translate scientific court findings to popular social visioning of what the findings imply in terms of social or policy changes?Molly: That's profound, isn't it? I'm trying to again reason by analogy. When the Congress makes decisions or the Supreme Court has a finding, how does that get translated into our culture? Would it be any different in the case of, say, environmental problems?The purpose of the science court, as articulated in the mid '70s in the report to President Bush. That report, which is only 10 pages, emphasized over and over and over again that it would be very public, very transparent. The debate would be aired. There would be a neutral referee, as I mentioned.That would be a necessary condition. Obviously, it's far from a sufficient condition for findings and determinations. People always win and lose differently.Most of these problems incur a cost now and a benefit later. That is a very hard decision calculus. It is inconsistent with a myopic, but rationally myopic, politician. It's inconsistent with what most of us demonstrate in our household management, in the failure to adequately plan for our retirement.In the case where we're incurring cost today for benefits tomorrow, it's really complicated. I think your point about how that is acculturated is right on. That is the uniqueness of these kinds of forever-ours problems.David Downes: I'm David Downes with the department's International Affairs Office. In the spirit of a seminar, I have something that's probably more a comment than a question, and reflects the risk that in any seminar you may have students show up who don't do the reading...Molly: [laughs]David: ...yet say things. My comment has to do with the two models. I think I heard you propose one, a Federal Reserve Board model of independent, appointed experts who come up with the best solution to problems.The other being a court in which, I guess, appointed judges or decision-makers would hear adversaries, argue something out, and then reach a decision. My comment would be that I would tend to think the first model, a board, is probably a stronger model, and that in fact the judicial system has shown itself to actually be not very effective in terms of evaluating scientific claims.In many cases, if you look at, for example, fingerprinting and the scientific evidence that underlies or doesn't underlie practices for fingerprint matching, the use of eyewitness testimony in criminal procedures, there are actually some profound problems with the way the judicial system has handled scientific evidence. I think I...there would just be a comment that the first model seems like it might be a stronger way to go.Molly: A board of governors might be able to have a more clinical approach to the kinds of data and information that are necessarily associated with these kinds of problems.David: For one thing, the bilateral argument structure, the adversarial structure of the court system is not well suited to a lot of the environmental science problems we deal with. If you look, for example, at the way the climate change debate in the public has been framed as skeptics versus supposed extremists advocating a vision of climate change, that in itself is an unconstructive way to look at the problem.If you look at some of the scientific and technical problems where we probably feel like we've had some success, like cleaning up air pollution, water pollution to some extent, or food and drug controls, typically they've been dealt with by assigning the problem to some specialized agency or commission. Letting them develop solutions, rather than leaving it to the courts to hear litigants on either side argue about liability.Molly: Mm-hmm. Did you say it was David?David: Dave.Molly: You're in the international policy office?David: Yeah, but speaking from outside.Molly: Yeah. In response to the question earlier about international implications of this, and in the spirit of a seminar, do you have thoughts about that? Is there anything different about this, that is different from any other types of international affairs of the nation, which are always complex?David: The one thought I had in the back of my mind as I was listening today was...This is not fully answering your question, but...Molly: That's OK, I'm putting you on the spot.David: It kind of loops back to what I was saying. An article I remember reading, maybe in the last year or so, that was reporting on supposedly how China has dealt with climate change and renewable energy issues.There was a comment from someone in the Chinese government to the effect that, "We tend to...Unlike the United States, most of our officials, if they have a professional background it's usually not law. It more tends to be science and engineering."In our system, if the scientists get together and come up with a compelling scientific case for what's happening, then we assign the problem to the engineers. They come up with an analysis of the ways you might respond and the trade offs that we have in any technical solution, then we pick one and we put them to work."Whereas in America, they seem to have a lot of people with legal backgrounds who get involved in this kind of adversarial argument, selective quoting of facts and so on, and it hinders them from making progress. Not us." One report of one official's perspective from another country, but that stuck in my mind, and it came to mind again today.Molly: Yeah, thank you. There was sort of a technocracy, and this kind of, "Let's all comment on it, and have at it," so yeah. Thank you.[silence]Molly: Malka is running around with the microphone everywhere, here.Moderator: Another question from the folks over the Internet. How would a board or a court function procedurally? Would they take a vote and have a majority opinion/minority opinion, and that opinion would then be handed out to politicians and regulators to deal with?Molly: That's a good question. I want to say a majority vote with dissenting opinions. But I can also go back to the Science Court report for the President and see if they had a way of figuring out a voting procedure. Interesting question.Malka: I've got a question.Molly: I think you're allowed, all the exercise you're getting back there.Malka: It took us decades to develop a GDP for the relatively easier to measure productivity. I've talked to Jim about this, and he envisions decades for a green GDP. Do you see it as a satellite model, where over decades, our environmental wealth is measured separately? Do you ever see them merging into one GDP?Molly: So Malka is referring to Jim Boyd. Perhaps you know Jim. I know Jim spoke in your series earlier this year. He's at Resources for the Future, and he's long thought about green GDP. And as I mentioned, Joseph Stiglitz has thought about it, and Stiglitz just visited RFF two weeks ago and spoke about this again.Professor Stiglitz was much more optimistic about this. He didn't distinguish satellite and the actual way in which the accounting would take place. But he underscored that other countries are moving in this direction and are piloting some types of green GDP.Again, he said, "Do you measure what you value and the need for having this?" What he didn't say, what Jim doesn't necessarily say, but what I like to add to this, for whatever it's worth, is... I'm a big fan of the vantage point of earth from space, whether it's Landsat, or the NASA suite of instruments, or those of the Europeans, or the Chinese, or the Brazilians.Depending on the type of instrument, one can begin to get incredible fidelity about certain environmental media, and one can see human interaction with them, and one can get these kinds of snapshots on a fairly regular routine basis, and they're quantitative and photographic both. What I think hasn't yet been explored is the extent to which these new types of data could underpin this kind of social accounting.I think that's a very interesting and intriguing question, because we now have new ways of taking a census, if you will, of our environmental assets. Can we bring those to bear in some kind of way that can also be very visually illustrative for the public, as well as in numbers and quantities?Another question from the Internet?Moderator: Indeed.Molly: OK.Moderator: Would you care to comment on the incentives that are facing scientists, in terms of needing to compete for grant money or other limited funds, and temptations that may face them in terms of exaggerations, or putting out incorrect or incomplete claims?Molly: Yes. For anyone in this room who's had to write a grant proposal, it's a very good question. The question is, does the fact that you have to compete, and the dollars are scarce, especially in some areas, does it have a tendency to make us act differently in some kind of unintended way, perhaps?I don't know about the answer to that. I guess it partly depends on whether you think peer review in general, or in these kinds of cases, works well, because peer review is certainly what we rely on to bring that kind of credibility to a system. It's certainly the gold standard for becoming faculty member, peer review publications still really matter, but if the peer review system is broken, we've got a couple of problems that are really severe, and we need to review them.I would suggest that we've relied on peer review, and does it work or not, on average, to advance our understanding without too many perverse consequences.Malka: Any other questions?Woman: I just wanted to ask about the decider, or the board, or however you become appointed or if you're on a board.Molly: The kings and the queens.Woman: Who gets to put them there, and how do they get there?Molly: So someone would have to suggest them and appoint them. There could be a deliberative process for that as well. And then if they're appointed for a sustained period of time, like for life, that would be a very consequential position to have, to be ruling on matters of this caliber of import. And again, decisions that have financial implications for costs are likely to be incurred today. Taking that oath, it's a very serious deal.Woman: And you're talking about the Commons and they're boundaryless.Molly: Yeah.Woman: It's an incredibly interesting discussion.Molly: So I want to thank everybody.Malka: One more.Molly: Oh, OK. I'm worried about folks having to depart, but go ahead.Moderator: If you have time Dr., thank you.Molly: Oh sure.Moderator: Would you care to comment on the feasibility of developing a renewability index that would measure renewability of activities, such as our economic activity?Molly: Was the word "renewability"?Moderator: Renewability.Molly: Renewability index? Would you mind reading that question one more time?Moderator: I'll read it verbatim. Should we develop a renewability index to measure the renewability of activities to apply to economic activity?Molly: That's interesting. If I am thinking what a renewability index would mean, I'm assuming it means how long lived... Help me out, if anybody has heard this idea of a renewability index before. Are resources finite or not? Under what conditions of innovation can you build a bionic coral reef, and it's going to serve ecosystem functions just as good as a real coral reef?A renewability index might need to address questions of that which can be renewed and still serve functionally, so on the basis of functions and ecosystem services. That might be the decision criteria.I'm really talking a little bit really from the hip now, so I'll make a note and think it. If the person asking the question has more information about a renewability index, Malka has my email and I would love to correspond further about it. I really mean that, that's an interesting idea.Malka: Please join me in thanking Dr. Macauley.Molly: Yeah. Thank you all so much, fabulous discussion.[applause]Malka: You, too.