Something significant in the arenas of climate change and science communication just went down. The Washington Post was the first to report that the 15 members of the Federal Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment received notice via email that their committee was being disbanded. The primary purpose of the committee was to make recommendations to relevant federal agencies following the release of a congressionally mandated climate report produced every four years with the next Fourth National Climate Assessment due out early 2018. The report presents the consensus from the scientific community on various aspects of climate change science; however, it stops short of providing actionable next steps based on the data. This is where the role of the advisory committee was so crucial in interpreting the consensus points to provide recommendations for science-based policymaking.
Members of the now defunct committee have warned that without their guidance, the presentation of the data could be widely misinterpreted by both policymakers and the public who do not necessarily have the scientific expertise to interpret the data. While this can come across as science elitism, it is in fact true of anyone who lacks expertise in any area trying to interpret raw data. Climate change scientists attempting to understand a raw data dump of baseball statistics without any context would not be the best people to trust in predicting future game outcomes (my first effort at a sports analogy!). In the same vein, context and expertise are critical in sifting through the data in order to determine probable future scenarios and their accompanying actionable policy decisions.
Without the advisory committee to help policymakers make sense of the science, the climate science community runs the risk of being ignored, or even worse, having decisions made based on incorrect interpretations of the report. Communicating science to non-experts in a way that is clear, timely, and useful is critical for ensuring policymaking based on credible science. Dismantling the federal advisory committee on climate change contributes to the politicization of science and the current administration’s ongoing campaign to disqualify science from the policymaking process. My recent peer-reviewed article published through Cambridge University Press explores in more detail how values trump science every time.
Hopefully value judgments will align with scientific consensus and recommendations on coastal infrastructure building as flooding intensifies.