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Competent Leaders Need to Understand the Science of Sustainability

Energy Climate Leadership

In speaking about climate policy last week, President Obama chided senators who are trying to dodge the climate issue by claiming they were not scientists. The president went on to claim that he was not a scientist either, but that “I’ve got this guy, John Holdren. He’s a scientist.” What President Obama didn’t say was that Dr. Holdren’s job is specifically to communicate climate science to the president and that the president has made it his job to learn it. Leaders need to make an effort to learn from scientists and scientists have a responsibility to communicate with leaders.

In the modern, complex, technology-laden world we live in, there is no excuse for scientific illiteracy. People who run our institutions — those with law degrees, social science and humanities PhDs, public policy, as well as business and management degrees — all need to make a real effort to understand the science, engineering, and architecture of our planet and the built environment we have constructed. You would be surprised if a CEO told you that since they weren’t accountants, they didn’t need to learn how to read financial statements. Why would anyone — CEO or senator — advertise their inability to understand science? The physical and technological elements of organizational life have become too important for leaders to ignore. The costs of water, energy, materials, buildings, communication, production and information technology are key elements of an organization’s cost structure. So too are the impacts of production and products on waste streams and on the planet.

Very few business, law or public policy graduate programs require future leaders to learn how to understand science or integrate scientific understanding into organizational or public decision-making. At Columbia’s Earth Institute, I direct and teach in two management programs that require course work in science. The first, which is in its twelfth year, is the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy, a collaboration with Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. The second, entering its fourth year, is the Master of Science in Sustainability Management, a partnership with Columbia’s School of Continuing Education. Earth Institute researchers teach as adjunct faculty in these programs and have worked hard to design courses that enable future decision makers to understand science without becoming full-time scientists.

Both programs have typical requirements in management, finance, public policy, economics and quantitative analysis. However, our sustainability faculty requires that our students study science as well as management. The Sustainability Management program requires three courses in the “physical dimensions of sustainability”. These can be courses in ecology, environmental science, or engineering, but can also be courses in energy efficiency, climate change, green architecture, or environmental toxicology. The Environmental Science and Policy program is more prescriptive and requires six two-credit science courses in a single semester, including environmental chemistry, toxicology and risk assessment, climate science, hydrology, principles of ecology and urban ecology. These students also engage in a workshop course where they simulate the implementation of a piece of proposed but not yet enacted environmental legislation. During the “science semester,” our public policy students spend their time learning to understand and communicate the science of the environmental problem their bill is attempting to address. They also seek to understand and communicate the science of the bill’s proposed solution to the environmental problem at hand.

Half of these public policy students have undergraduate science backgrounds; half do not. Our students work together, in teams, to develop the understanding and messaging needed to explain environmental science to decision makers. In a world that is increasingly vulnerable to disruption of the technology needed for daily life, the ability to understand and communicate scientific complexity is vital for contemporary leadership. It is not simply our home entertainment system that requires technological infrastructure to function, but our food, water, energy, transportation, waste management, and health care systems as well. Our high-tech world does not function by magic. Our economy is technology-based and requires expertise and managers who understand enough of what the experts know to be capable of leading an organization’s work.

I am not advocating that everyone disappear into a lab and into a life of endless geekdom. While it is true that we need more people to become scientists, not everyone has the talent or interest to be a scientist. I certainly don’t. But it is essential that we develop a profession of managers who are not scientists, but understand science and technology well enough to integrate scientific fact into organizational decision-making. At the very start of my career in the federal Environmental Protection Agency, I learned that environmental policy and management required an understanding of the basics of environmental science. I had to learn that science on the job, but it never occurred to me that I could skate by without it.

The goal of sustainability management is to maximize the productive use of our planet without destroying its capacity for continued use. To do this we need to understand the impacts of the technologies we rely on for daily life. I know we are stuck with fossil fuels even though they damage the planet when we extract them from the earth and when we burn them for energy. The cost of turning off or even slowing down our economic machine is far greater than the benefits. But the idea that a significant number of America’s elected leaders either question or profess ignorance about climate science is shocking. It is one thing to say it will take a while to correct past mistakes and transition of off fossil fuels. It is quite different to say that we have made no mistakes — to say, “There is no climate crisis; global warming is a myth.”

It is important to develop consensus around facts and reality. A person shot dead on the street is not in suspended animation. A glass of water may look like vodka, but it doesn’t pack the same punch. The environmental impact of the settlements, machines, food and water of seven billion people is far greater than the impacts of a planet of three billion people. Earth’s human population was three billion in the 1960s and is over seven billion today. If you don’t think our use of energy causes heat, stand next to an idling truck during a mid-August heat wave. Feel the heat? Where do you think all the waste heat from our power plants, homes and cars ends up? We can argue about what to do about homicides, alcoholism, or climate change, but our view of reality must be based on the same facts. And in a high-tech, globally interconnected economy our survival depends on scientific fact being researched, debated, accepted, understood and acted on.

We need to invest in more advanced science and technology, and in understanding and managing the technology we use. Ignorance is not bliss; it is dangerous and, in the case of our nation’s public and private leaders, more than a little pathetic. The definition of competent leadership must begin to include the ability to understand and manage complexity: complex organizational networks, multi-dimensional communications processes, complex production technologies, and the complex science that makes all of these complex systems possible.

Photo Credit: Energy and Climate Leadership/shutterstock

Steven Cohen's picture

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Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Jul 9, 2014

Good points here.

It’s a catch-22 I think. As long as the public rewards scientifically illiterate politicians (or at least does not vote them out) science illiteracy will prevail in politics. At the same time, as long as science illiteracy is the rule in politics, policies to increase science literacy among the public will not appear either.

At the end of the ninetees, a high-profile but low-visibility US think-tank (I forgot the name) concluded that issues like “Peak Oil and Gas” and Climate Change were predicaments that could not be pre-emptively solved through politics. Each of those problems would only be solvable after they had fully manifested themselves. US politics on climate and energy is well explained by this conclusion, although it appears that the timely push for shale gas development does seem to have been prompted by the imminent threat of Peak O&G.

Anyway, I guess what we’re seeing today in politics is proof of the statement: “Every nation gets the leadership that it deserves”. I guess we need to make sure that the public increases its science awareness so that the politicians can become more confident that sticking to the facts (however complex and unwelcome they may be) will be recognised and rewarded by the voter. Too often, politicians who do stick to the facts lose votes. When I speak to politicians, that is what they tell me. This situation is – in my opinion – more a failure of the intellectual elite in society than anything else. If intellectuals took up the role of guardians of science and truth, and the media provided them with a neutral platform, then that might be a good way to turn things around?

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Jul 10, 2014

Waste heat from the thermal cycle of a CO2 free source is far less of a detriment than that of excess infrared absorbers (the source being that the solar input is in far excess to what we could ever generate). Therefore, to escape the fossil fueled path of destruction, we need to either cover the planet with close to a million square miles of solar, wind and their huge storage requirements or simply standardize advanced nuclear. We can do both, but we can not just back RE with FF!

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Jul 11, 2014

Obama was echoing a theme posed by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine in an article titled “Why Do Republicans Always Say ‘I’m Not a Scientist’?”:

Asked by reporters yesterday if he accepts the scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming, John Boehner demurred on the curious but increasingly familiar grounds that he is not a scientist. “Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” the House Speaker said. …

This particular demurral seems to be in vogue for the Grand Old Party. Florida governor Rick Scott (“I’m not a scientist”) and Senator Marco Rubio (“I’m not a scientist. I’m not qualified to make that decision.”) have both held up their lack of scientific training as a reason to withhold judgment on anthropogenic global warming.

This criticism might have more credibility if it also acknowledged how commonly climate activists dismiss the arguments of politicians, analysts, and even scientists who dare to openly challenge some of the desperate claims made in the name of “climate science.” Consider just a few examples:

Why has there been such a buzz about FiveThirtyEight and Roger Pielke Jr.? Likely because Pielke has a history of climate claims which have been criticized by scientists — not the type of hire many of us expected by the FiveThirtyEight team. Dr. Pielke, a political scientist (not a climate scientist), was recently called out by Dr. John Holdren for statements he made to congress on droughts.—  John Abraham, in Huffington Post 

You all do realize that this guy isn’t even a climate scientist, he’s an economist. It’s sad that they can’t even find scientists that discount AGW to try to “debunk” the consensus. — comment on report that Richard Tol had resigned in protest from an IPCC panel.

The BBC received a well-organized deluge of complaints — some of them, inevitably, from those with a vested interest in renewable energy — accusing me, among other things, of being a geriatric retired politician and not a climate scientist, and so wholly unqualified to discuss the issue.— Nigel Lawson, Global Warming Policy Foundation  

James Taylor  — a professional denial propagandist. He not a climate scientist or even a scientist in any way. He’s a lawyer paid by the Heartland Institute to write climate change denial propaganda.— blogger J. Jerrald Hayes  

Fox News and Fox Business Network frequently host Joe Bastardi to comment on climate change. But Bastardi, who is a weather forecaster, not a climate researcher, has made inaccurate claims about climate science on multiple occasions and is not seen by experts as a credible source of climate information.— Media Matters  

…the rest comes from a retired TV weatherman named Anthony Watts (who’s not a climate scientist), who runs the climate denier blog WattsUpWithThat. Watts was on Heartland’s payroll last year for a $44,000 project to undermine climate change evidence gathered from weather stations, funded by Heartland’s billionaire “anonymous donor,” Barre Seid.— Polluter Watch  

Freeman Dyson isn’t a climate scientist, and agnosia is only a cloak for denial. — comment on Shaping Tomorrow’s World blog  

The frequency of these sorts of attacks may explain why some politicians and others opt to recuse themselves from engaging in arguments about climate-related science. In effect, they may be preempting the criticism by conceding it and using it as license for silence.

Marcus Pun's picture
Marcus Pun on Jul 11, 2014

Had to chuckle over this one. While I returned to Cal Berkeley in 1977 after a taking a few years off,  Holdren was head of the Energy and Resources Dept. that had recently formed. As an undergrad in the College of Natural Resources, formerly the School of Forestry and Agriculture or something…, a number of us took quite the gamut of classes, ranging from energy classes via E&R that Holdren gave, to climatology(and yes, CO2 warming was a major subject), energy engineering, air pollution engineering, a number of resource economics courses, and several policy courses including a resource and policy class that involved a lot of resource economics. Forestry being the hot example of the time.   Sad to say, energy policy was not on people’s must hire list when I graduated in 1979, although I did interview for an energy conservation position at PG&E when it was implementing some of Gov. Jerry Brown’s conservation plans. While I have not been directly involved in the energy business, ( I have worked for PG&E and Chevron briefly on several projects),  I have always kept up with the ldevelopments and th eliterature. Gratified to see it get the belated attention it deserves. More gratified every day I look at the Cal-ISO page and similar ISO pages across the nation.  Holdren’s classes BTW, very compelling. Fun, because there was a lot of what we call spitballing these days because so much was new.

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