Project Background

The earth sciences, backed by formidable arrays of data-gathering and processing technologies, today offer the apparently credible promise of predicting the future of nature. Policy makers, under pressure as always to deliver public benefit at low cost, have strong incentives to accept this promise as a central response to environmental issues.

This project investigates the role of prediction in the making of environmental policies. This includes policy decisions in planning for and responding to natural hazards (weather, floods, earthquakes, asteroids) and anthropogenic hazards (global climate change, acid rain, nuclear waste), managing natural resources (oil reserves, beaches), and regulating environmental impacts (mining). The project is a collaboration between the Columbia University’s Center for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, the Environmental and Societal Impacts Group at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the Geological Society of America, with support from the National Science Foundation.

The project has convened several workshops to bring together a diverse group of people involved in various ways with the process of prediction. Among the participants were a scientist who develops climate models, the former emergency manager of a major California city, a banker from a coastal city that is subject to hurricanes, earthquakes, and beach erosion, a seismologist, a rancher, a former official at the federal Office of Management and Budget, an engineer who works on nuclear waste isolation, and a coastal geologist who studies beach erosion. The goal of the project is to apply the collective wisdom of a range of stakeholders (including natural scientists who make predictions and social scientists who are concerned with their use) to the issue of how scientific predictions ought to be used (or not used or not misused) in the development of effective policies relating to natural hazards, natural resources, and the environment.

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