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Science & the Public

Science & the Public

Political Science

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Although “my undergraduate degree happens to be in engineering,” noted New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, this morning, “I was the kind of student who normally made the top half of the class possible.”

With that self-deprecating quip (and more to follow), he had the roughly 125 scientists attending the first World Science Summit laughing and paying rapt attention. And it was a sympathetic audience for what would be his take-home message: that although scientific advances are narrowing the gap between what we know and don’t know, their impacts are “dwarfed” by the “tragic lag between what we know and what we do.”

He pointed, for instance, to the fact that fully a half-century ago, scientists were already linking smoking with cancer. By the 1970s, science had also begun predicting that increased carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel burning would warm the climate “with the potentially catastrophic consequences that are playing out now, all over the world.” Yet society fought anti-smoking campaigns as vehemently as the Bush administration has fought regulations to slow climate change.

And the reason? “Far too often,” the mayor contends, “it's because of what I call ‘political science’ - the willingness [of governments] to disregard or suppress scientific findings when they don't conform to a pre-determined political agenda.”

Them's fightin’ words, mayor.

And he raised his political fists with more strong rhetoric challenging the Bush policy of mandating huge and increasing development of fuel ethanol from corn. “Our government's continued subsidies for the production of corn ethanol,” he said, amount to “moral bankruptcy.” His reasoning: In a search for a simple answer to the oil-imports problem, he pushed a policy that wasn’t based on science – but was popular with Corn Belt constituents, domestic oil companies, and automakers. Instead of pushing for conservation and higher-mileage vehicles, the president’s policies divert a cereal crop from food to fuel.

The resulting higher corn prices have helped propel food shortages and riots from the Philippines to Egypt, he says. Adding insult to injury, the administration is taxing ethanol made from sugar at 54 cents per gallon while subsidizing ethanol from corn to the tune of 45 cents per gallon, he notes – “even though sugar-based ethanol is cheaper and producing it generates less carbon dioxide.” Does that make sense, he asks? It certainly gives me pause.

"When such political science triumphs, both politics and science suffer, and so does our entire economy,” he contends. But politics and science don't have to be antagonists, he argues, if governments “embrace what science tells us regardless of the consequences” and ignore misguided pleadings of special interests.

He talked about how his administration looked at the smoking issue in 2002 and determined that some 10,000 New York City residents were dying prematurely each year from diseases triggered by cigarette smoke. So he got the city to pass anti-smoking laws for public buildings, ones that weren’t popular, and increased the tax on cigarettes.

Today, smoking by New Yorkers is down 20 percent, he says, and dropped even more among teens.

In another campaign – this time to combat global warming – Bloomberg had city agencies measure New York’s carbon footprint. And it was huge: some 58 million metric tons of CO2 per year – and growing. Last October, in response to the findings, he signed an executive order forcing city agencies to cut their CO2 emissions 30 percent by 2017. To make the necessary changes, he said, “we've committed 10 percent of our annual energy costs – equal to roughly $80 million a year.”

That’s putting science into politics, he says.

He’s also instructed city cabbies to convert to hybrid vehicles or similarly high-fuel-economy cars within four years. That’s a big change considering New York’s is the biggest taxi fleet in the world.

I took one of those taxis today on the way back to my hotel from the summit. Traffic was heavy so our progress was glacial. When I noticed the hacker was checking a Turkish-language newspaper, we struck up a long conversation – first on our favorite spots in Turkey, then on taxis and their gasoline bills. This guy’s vehicle logs 7,000 miles a month. But because he already drives a hybrid, when traffic slows or stops, the car runs on electricity or just stops. As a result, his gas bill for each 8-hour shift runs about $20. Fueling conventional taxis: “Oh, it costs them at least $40 a day,” he says.

Looks like Bloomberg won’t have much trouble with his hybrid rebellion. The oil markets are making his case for him.

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