by Sami Grover, Carrboro, NC, USA on 11.21.09

Image credit: Cedar Consulting

Contradictory science is nothing new within the green movement—from those who claim that solar energy could power the world to those who argue that nuclear power could solve the energy crisis, from those extolling biochar for carbon sequestration and soil improvement to those who say it could destroy the biosphere. In fact, it’s in the very nature of science to constantly question, deliberate and reexamine the evidence available, and consequently there are almost always differing opinions and seemingly contradictory studies. But at some point we have to make decisions based on the science we have. At some point we have to act.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since a commenter on my post about green living as passive aggressive preaching asked for “absolute PROOF that all of these intrusive laws that are going to take my family’s and my own personal choices are 100%, beyond a shadow of a doubt, going to ‘save the earth’ and all of its inhabitants.”

I could not, of course, provide her with any, any more than anyone—scientist or not—can provide absolute proof of what might happen in the future. (The same commenter said in advance that she did not want “models” or “educated guesses”, which rules out most methods for predicting the future that I know.) I didn’t lose too much sleep over this particular issue. While the argument rumbles on for some, with Exxon now accepting the existance of man-made climate change, and with the climate skeptic’s favorite scientist actually being a vocal climate action proponent, I’m ready to move on until someone shows me convincing evidence of this elaborate hoax I keep hearing about.

But accepting that man made climate change is real, and knowing what to do about it, are too different things. What if the nuclear folks are right? What if solar power is the only way? Or what if ocean iron fertilization really can sequester massive amounts of carbon? How the heck do we, as interested lay people, environmentalists, activists, or even experts, decipher all the different studies, research papers and marketing claims that are out there?

Ultimately I don’t have an answer, except that we need to keep the debate going, and we all need to become literate in a broad range of disciplines. I do know that we need to assess all arguments and evidence, not just for what is being said, but also by who is saying it and where it is being said. (A peer-reviewed paper by an independent scientist is a very different beast to a marketing document from a solar company.) And I do know that our regulations should, where possible, regulate for outcomes, not promote specific technologies—a price on carbon will be much more effective than a ban on the light bulb. (See my post on why gardening is the best metaphor for everything for more ramblings in that vein.)

We also need to be aware of our own prejudices and preconceptions—some of us will favor big, bold technological solutions, others of us will be more inclined to the small is beautiful approach. All directions are valid for consideration, but the urgency of our task requires decisive action. So let’s keep learning. Let’s keep debating. And let’s keep demanding hard evidence. But above all, let’s keep taking action.