Gov. Kathleen Blanco seized the opportunity to buttonhole President Bush on his visit to New Orleans recently and pitch the long-awaited coastal restoration plan. The president reportedly replied that he'd support it, provided it was based on "sound science." To which our governor, in good faith, replied that she agreed.
How could she not? Who could be against sound science? But chances are that the president and the governor meant very different things by the term. And that difference is a major factor in the holdup.
Time was, science took the lead in America's environmental policy. Rachael Carson, Barry Commoner and other researchers sounded the alarm, and others went on to point out exactly what needed fixing and how.
Then industry got wise. Science turned out to have one big problem: definitive proof. Any standard it set was disputable by other scientists; any theory of causation it posited raised a host of other theories. Maybe we didn't need to phase all the lead out of gas, just some of it. Maybe it wasn't shell dredging that tore up Lake Pontchartrain, but the wind.
These challenges are the hallmark of science. They keep it honest and produce constant discoveries. However, to decision-makers who require irrefutable proof, the uncertainty is fatal. In something as controversial as an ozone standard, if you can't fix a numerical level and defend it against all others, the standard is doomed.
Those who opposed environmental policy learned to exploit this weakness. The old water and air pollution control acts stalled over scientific controversies, followed by laws governing toxins, pesticides and hazardous waste. Put to the rigors of absolute proof, they could not hold. For this reason, America's mainline environmental programs took a different turn and resorted to other means to achieve their goals.
We now see a return to science, not for the purpose of environmental protection but rather to defeat it. Consider the advice of Frank Luntz, a presidential and congressional strategist, on the growing problem of climate change:
"Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community," he advised members of Congress and the administration. Thus, "you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty the primary issue in the debate."
Might this tactic be stretching the truth a little? "A compelling story," he explained, "even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth."
What we have heard from the administration since on global warming was captured in an editorial cartoon by Walt Handelsman, who drew a person labeled "U.S." crawling across the desert under a hot sun, holding out his canteen and pleading, "more study!" Luntz wins.
The approach is pervasive. We refuse to list even the most dangerous toxins, dioxin among them, for want of absolute certainty. We refuse to recognize even the most endangered species, because the Farm Bureau has dug up someone who disagrees. Under EPA guidance states have halved their lists of polluted waters simply by saying that the pollution is unproved.
The White House has just announced that it is challenging the World Health Organization's program on obesity, questioning -- of all things -- the science behind limiting food advertising directed at children, limiting fats and, dare we say it, sugar. Corporate law firms have been quick to take up the cry, urging with some success that judges throw out cases of environmental injury on their own initiative for the lack of "sound science."
Does anyone for a moment believe that the administration, industry and the Farm Bureau have become sudden converts to Descartes, Mendel and the scientific method? Or have they found a new way to duck their responsibility for climate change, species extinction and ordinary people harmed by toxic exposures?
Re-read Frank Luntz. Could he say what is going on any more clearly?
Which brings us back to the president, the governor and what they were really saying. My guess is that the governor was speaking at face value: We should do what the scientists say. But the president, on the basis of this administration's record, was saying something very different: We will not act until the science is conclusive, i.e. a cold day in hell.
"Sound science" is a loaded concept. We may not know all the answers, or even all the questions, on coastal restoration. But it is time to move.
Oliver Houck is a professor of law at Tulane University.