March 01, 2017

Vantage Point

Jim Murphy, Issue Editor

As I write this, we appear to have moved rather rapidly from one world to another: from the fact-based, science-driven world we have known and relied on to what appears to be a new, troubling post-science world of “alternative facts” where the broad consensus of scientists can be dismissed or denied. For the first time, we have a new presidential administration whose stated position on climate change is denial—notwithstanding that climate change is something close to 100 percent of scientists agree on—and a Congress controlled by a party that, by and large, is in similar denial. Meanwhile, our media has been weakened as a check on truth. Much of the public, urged by the new administration, no longer view the press as an honest broker on public discourse. Instead, people willfully believe they can choose their own facts, and science is all too easily manipulated and dismissed in public debate. As people insulate themselves in their respective echo chambers, meaningful dialogue is stifled, and the broad public consensus that we should be guided by science withers.

However, despite this trend, we live in a real world with real facts that define our reality. To stay with the climate change example, for practical purposes, the science is settled. The year that just ended eclipsed 2015 as the warmest on record, which in turn eclipsed the year before that. A betting person would do well to wager that 2017 will again break the record. Unprecedented flooding, droughts, coastal erosion, forest fires, and arctic melting are already upon us, with consequences for our communities, our health, and our natural resources. The scientific questions remaining have more to do with how rapidly climate change is happening and how dire the impacts will be. Sadly, with each passing year, the answers appear to be faster and more dire. Dealing with this reality by seeking solutions at the pace and scale needed should be our focus, not a faux debate on the science.

For lawyers, and especially environmental lawyers, sound science and facts are the backbone of what we do. Virtually all of our nation’s bedrock environmental laws rely on strong science to guide their implementation. Protection of endangered and threatened species should occur based on the best available science. Science is central to determining whether our waters are polluted, and what is required to clean them up. Science guides analysis and the determination of what is relevant under legally required environmental reviews. It determines what levels of air pollution are too dangerous in order to protect public health and the environment. In short, strong science helps us reach the right environmental decisions. Its erosion will threaten the certainty and correctness of the results. We should all be concerned about a world where science is increasingly dismissed, under attack, under-funded, and undermined—and where facts don’t matter. Without strong science, we threaten to slip closer to the world of Kafka’s K, where fairness, objectivity, and truth give way to the cruelty of the absurd.

This issue of NR&E explores some pressing scientific issues currently before us as environmental lawyers. The articles include broad ranging issues like a primer on climate science, an exploration of how the technology of driverless vehicles affect a variety of laws and policies, how to contend with cultural perceptions of science, how open records requests apply to scientific research, and an examination of crowdsourced research. The issue contains articles of more particularized scope such as the application of stable isotopes to tracing, how dose levels impact whether we view a substance as toxic, an examination of the advantages and disadvantages of presumed compliance for certain municipal water quality processing plants, and an exploration of how we approach data quality. What is clear from these articles is how central science is to what we do. It is important that we continue to have a strong commitment to science, to understanding it, advancing it, and creating an environment where it is not unnecessarily politicized or dismissed.

As this issue makes clear, science is essential to our ability to do our jobs as lawyers. It is vital to reaching the right result. It is something we must defend and support.

Jim Murphy, Issue Editor