Clashing Claims to Expertise in Environmental and Energy Controversies: Peak Oil, Acid Rain, and Climatology, 1930–2010

AHA Session 218
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Columbia Hall 5 (Washington Hilton)
Ronald E. Doel, Florida State University
Ronald E. Doel, Florida State University

Session Abstract

This session seeks to further understanding of the nature of expertise in scientific controversies, in light of four major 20th-century debates over environmental issues central to industrial and post-industrial economies and governments.  Aligning with the 2014 AHA meeting’s theme of “Disagreement, Debate, Discussion,” this panel investigates how “vigorous disagreement for managing public affairs” has played out in debates over the foundational issues of energy production and security, the threats of pollution on the health and well-being of citizens, and the specter of climate change.

James Bergman examines debates in the 1930s among scientists and policymakers over flood control in the context of renewed political will toward policies that favored planning and management in an unstable economic and environmental climate.  Connemara Doran analyzes the contentious debate over “peak oil” among geophysicists, economists, and politicians since the 1950s, arguing that the controversy reveals two competing narratives of resource growth -- one geophysically-constrained and finite, the other market-driven and open-ended.  Martin Mahony explores two recent controversies in the climate change debate – an IPCC visualization of global climate change risks and the response of the Indian government to an erroneous prediction of melting Himalayan glaciers – which are united by the peculiar challenges posed to conventional norms of public knowledge-making by efforts to describe the future.  Controversies over the status of climatic risks quickly become contests over the norms by which knowledge is related to action.  Rachel Rothschild analyzes how in the 1970s calls for scientific research to produce “sufficient knowledge” about transboundary air pollution and its relationship to acid rain were used by some governments to advocate for further research and regulation and by others to avoid potentially costly reductions in pollution emissions by denying that there was sufficient “proof” of the adverse impact of acid rain.  

Each paper emphasizes the diverse sources of expertise that fueled these controversies over scientific evidence, over the boundaries between scientific, technological, economic, and political domains, and over the nature of human-mediated action on issues of global import to human societies.  Another recurring issue across our papers is the role of individual experts, scientific agencies, and governmental panels in passing judgments on what meets the criteria for scientific “truth” and on the relative credibility of the scientific evidence, individuals, and organizations involved in the debates.  In none of these cases are boundaries simply aligned along disciplinary divisions.  Rather, they reflect a complex set of narratives underlying diplomatic, economic, and political allegiances.       

We each explore the difficult question of how agreement is reached in the attempts at “closure” of these scientific controversies.  Whether manufactured, forced, or arrived at piecemeal, ultimately a certain level of compromise, consensus, or appeasement is reached, sometimes merely reflecting the status quo.  Yet each debate remained in certain respects unresolved, still open and contested in different ways.  We hope that by speaking across these historical cases our discussion will foster insight into the problematic echoes of these controversies reverberating in today’s contentious debates over energy and the environment.

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