Scientific Uncertainty and Decision-Making

Does scientific uncertainty impede pro-environmental decision-making in the public as well as in policy-making?

Does scientific uncertainty lead to environmental skepticism?

Do interactive designs communicate environmental challenges more clearly than mainstream news media and science journals?

Has the reliance on scientific “proof” to justify injury diminished the trust in science?

How closely correlated is environmental protection and economic growth?

What branch of the U.S. government has the greatest effect on environmental policy?

Night sweats. Fever. Swollen lymph nodes. Nausea. Rising sea levels. Depletion of wetlands. Droughts. The list goes on and on—a mélange of toxins culminating in localized problems. Air pollutants often go unseen until they make themselves known through the human body. Strides to connect the uncertainty of disease and natural disasters to human action and air pollutants have relied heavily on scientific research.  But how has the quantification of scientific certainty and economic valuation around environmental problems had negative effects on the regulation of potentially harmful substances?  As noted by Norman Vig and Michael Kraft, the late 60s to early 70s marked a time of widespread, bipartisan pro-environmental movements mostly due to sensationalist images and events capturing the risk of environmental problems as well as a plethora of scientific findings linking air and water pollutants to human illness.  This was a time in which the focus became much more legal and scientific than in the past.

The Clean Air Act was backed by Congress during this time period, the same year that the EPA was created and was given the primary role in carrying out the law (plain English guide to the CAA, 2).  To give the EPA even more authority in holding companies accountable for pollutant emissions, Congress amended the act in 1990 to include a requirement under section 812 that EPA “conduct periodic, scientifically reviewed studies to assess the benefits and the costs of the Clean Air Act” (ES-1).  Additionally, the Act majorly relied on cost-benefit analysis for justifying environmental programs.  This has proved to be an incredibly difficult way to assess the benefits of the act because it requires monetizing human suffering and loss. Another problem with this kind of assessment is that there are real, visible, upfront costs of implementing regulations while the benefits go unseen but are potentially far greater than the immediate costs.  As seen in the Supreme Court case between the state of Massachusetts and the EPA, under the modern framework, petitioners bear the burden of proof to show that an injury is “traceable to the Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to promulgate new motor vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards, and that is likely to be redressed by the prospective issuance of such standards” (Mass v. EPA, Roberts, C. J., dissenting, 2).  The problem is that it is almost impossible to trace alleged injuries “back through this complex web to the fractional amount of global emissions that might have been limited with EPA standards” (Roberts, C. J., dissenting, 11).

Though the rise in global temperatures and its linkage with greenhouse gases was based on scientific opinion, the EPA petitioned to not regulate ‘greenhouse gases’ due to conflict over what is under the EPA’s jurisdiction[1].  Additionally, the EPA capitalized on the ambiguity of the word ‘judgment’ to say that there are other areas of the government who can regulate; however, the term was meant that the EPA can only avoid regulations “if it determines that greenhouse gases do not contribute to climate change or if it provides some reasonable explanation as to why it cannot or will not exercise its discretion to determine whether they do” (5).  In other words, the EPA must give a reason for why it chooses to act or not act.  The Supreme Court’s opinion was that the use “of the word ‘judgment’ is not a roving license to ignore the statutory text.  It is but a direction to exercise discretion within defined statutory limits” (30).  It is of particular interest not only how scientific uncertainty led to snags in the regulatory process, but also, how the text itself became a science.  As noted in the Supreme Court case “textual ambiguity” of the definition of air pollutant and the lack of a definition for air pollution provided room for uncertainty, misunderstanding, and manipulation of the text.


[1] The EPA argued that the regulation of motor-vehicle carbon dioxide emissions would fall under the role of the Department of Transportation.


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