Sunday, July 12, 2009

FIRESIDE CHAT: Applying Science To Social and Political Issues

Many people regard social and political beliefs as strictly subjective, free to be one way or its opposite, with little if any dependence upon objective reality. Morals and ethics are constrained by social mores, but not by scientific limits; compassion does not have a molecular weight, and the flash point of your anger is not measured in degrees. So what is the proper role of science in analysis of social and political issues?

Social and political ideas often can be tested and potentially falsified by consideration of simple laws of physics, mathematics, statistics, and other sciences. If politicians were scientifically literate they could avoid errors contravening science, and if they also were honest, they wouldavoid such errors. Ultimately, in democracies, the responsibility for electing to office only individuals who are ethical and scientifically literate belongs to those who do the electing: "we, the people." If the wrong people for the job are elected, the fault is ours; as expressed by Pogo, the cartoon ‘possum, “I have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Some examples may clarify the importance of taking personal responsibility to be our own best friend rather than our own worst enemy. Reliance of the developed world on fossil fuels is a major issue, yet wrongheaded politicos seem ignorant of the physics that demands adoption of alternatives to fossil fuel. That is, you can have all the coal and oil you want, but their combustion will damage our atmosphere and ecosystems, and kill millions if not billions of people from disease, drought, and failure of agriculture. So, fossil fuel supply is a tiny part of the problem; developing alternative energy sources is essential for sustainability, whatever your politics.

Oil is being consumed rapidly, yet the roller-coaster prices of oil and oil-derived products tends to be attributed predominantly to fluctuating demand in the developing world, especially China. That is, to many people, politics—not science—is the culprit. Supply-side issues, such as the cost of extracting oil from increasingly great depths and remote locations, or from mixed phases such as oil shales or oil sands, are at least as important as demand, but tend to be ignored by those preferring to externalize responsibility for this economic issue by ignoring its scientific underpinning.

Success at extracting large oil supplies from oil shales and oil sands is not just an economic issue, but an issue of physics and engineering: the price of extracting oil rises with the engineering difficulty, and eventually matches the price of extracting oil from mixed phases such as shales and sands. So, rising oil prices is not purely the bane of which politicians complain, but also the key to developing major new oil supplies.

Many if not most educated people have learned about the greenhouse effect and the concept of our 'carbon footprint', referring to our emissions to the atmosphere of carbon dioxide and other 'greenhouse gases' (popularly measured in ‘carbon dioxide equivalents’) that contribute to a trend of global warming caused by human activities beginning with the Industrial Revolution. Most of us now know that reliance on fossil fuels, including abundant, relatively inexpensive fossil fuels such as coal, is incompatible with sustainability of our planet's ecosystems and services provided to our species and to all other species by those ecosystems.

Alternatives to fossil fuel are known, and they must be developed rapidly because survival of our natural ecosystems, and ultimately our species, is at stake. Rising fossil fuel prices accelerate research into alternative sources of energy, and their development. Despite the benefits of rising fossil fuel prices, many politicians complain, effectively ignoring the message of science: that the rise of sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels depends critically upon the rise of fossil fuel prices. In New York State, for example, Senator Charles ('Chuck') Schumer (in 2007) advocated reduction of the New York State tax on gasoline at service stations, notwithstanding that this proposal, if adopted, would exacerbate the dual problems of oil depletion and global warming rather than reduce them.

In the atmosphere another form of resource depletion likewise poses risks to our survival: ozone depletion. Ozone in the stratosphere protects our planet from ultraviolet solar radiation that causes gene mutations, damages ecosystems, and causes skin cancer in people. Ozone depletion has occurred globally, but atmospheric circulation patterns have made it most apparent seasonally in an 'ozone hole' that is most accentuated over the Earth's poles, especially the north pole. The predominant and undisputed cause is release of long-lived chemicals, primarily chlorofluorocarbons, most notably those that are sold commercially as freons for automobile and home air conditioners. Recognition of the problem has resulted in replacement of freons in air conditioning systems in the U. S. and Europe, but that has created a major black market for existing ‘orphaned’ freons in developing countries, especially in the huge markets of China and India, where freons are being used and released at a rate that has nearly eliminated the benefits of their replacement in U. S. and European markets. Politicians in developing countries must gain foresight, and act with scientific acumen, to avoid the kind of brinkmanship that poses an existential risk for us all. I must emphasize that, though this statement applies today to emerging markets, the antecedents to today's dire reality have resulted from lack of foresight and scientific acumen among politicians right here in the U. S. and in Europe, where regulatory failures have allowed ozone depletion and other environmental problems to progress to their current degree of severity.

Copyright © 2009 by The Center for Health Risk Assessment and Management, a Division of RAM TRAC Corporation