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Global-warming panel explores the role of scientists in politics

Most scientists maintain the Earth is heating up like a fireball; a small handful insist the majority is full of hot air. And politicians and media pundits can, and do, cite the work of either faction to back up their positions on global warming.

The role of science in policy-making and politics was explored last week at the third annual State of the Rockies four-day conference at Colorado College.

One of this year's most alarming findings involves the likely impact of global warming in the Rocky Mountain West. The college report found that if steps are not taken to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions into the atmosphere, Colorado's ski industry could be decimated by 2050.

During a panel discussion about the environmental and economic impacts of such a scenario, Roger Pielke Jr., a professor in the environmental program at the University of Colorado at Boulder, weighed in on the politicization of science.

"Science is complicated; politics is really complicated, and so it can be confusing when the two mix," Pielke said.

One classic example is that of the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, which was classified as threatened on the endangered species list in 1998 a move that resulted in restrictions that left land developers gnashing their teeth.

In 2003, a scientific study determined the Preble's mouse is not a distinct subspecies, and is not threatened. Developers rejoiced, while enviros fumed. Then, last year, scientists reported that the 2003 study was flawed. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service currently is collecting additional public comments on the Preble's mouse.

As Pielke noted, "the more research emerges, the more people become entrenched in their positions." He added that the public and the dealmakers who set policy would do well to consider the roles that scientists play while making decisions.

There are several flavors of scientist, including The Purist ("Here are the facts; you choose what to do"), The Arbiter ("Here's the information; now let me tell you the best way to proceed") and The Issue Advocate ("Here's the best way to proceed").

The fourth brand of scientist, the Honest Broker of Policy Options, fairly lays out all the alternatives.

"The scientific community," Pielke said, "is sorely lacking in Honest Brokers of Policy Options."

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