Many agree that one of the most pressing problems the world faces today is climate change. The question of what to do about it, however, has become highly politicised. Scepticism about climate change is typically a conservative position and trust in the conclusions of the scientific community a more progressive one. While this politicisation is perhaps most evident in the United States, it is well known in many other countries.
But this wasn’t always the case. Between 1972 and 1995, a US agency named the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) existed to provide the practical means to help overcome such politicisation. During its 23-year existence, the OTA was in a unique position to assist members of Congress in understanding complex issues in science and technology.
The OTA was a non-partisan agency governed by a technology assessment board which consisted of of equal numbers of senators and representatives and equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. Its assessments strove for objectivity and comprehensiveness, and were considered state-of-the-art documents by many. The OTA provided Congress, at its request, with the information and options it needed for the issues with which it was grappling, but it was careful never to tell Congress what it should do. The methodology that OTA used was widely admired and imitated in the parliamentary units that many European countries established following OTA’s lead.
In the early 1990s there was still Congressional interest in taking action on climate change, which most of the scientific community already understood would become a major problem if not addressed. Thus, in October 1993, the OTA published a two-volume, 700-page report, Preparing for an Uncertain Climate, at the request of three Congressional committees. I was a principal author. The report identified more than 100 options to help coastal areas, water resource systems, agriculture, wetlands, forests, and federally protected natural areas adapt to climate change. Not only that, but the OTA had also proposed – in its comprehensive 1991 assessment, Changing by Degrees – steps to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that would help the US avoid climate change.
Imagine where we would be now if Congress had begun to address climate change at the time of these reports (and the early reports of other organisations, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
Instead, the OTA was abolished in 1995, shortly after Republicans retook control of Congress and Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House of Representatives. At the time, the OTA was one of the most respected agencies in Washington.
Many reasons have been suggested for the move, but it mostly came down to a change in attitude towards the value of science and analysis in Congress. The OTA’s abolition was the proverbial canary in the coalmine with respect to the current anti-science attitude among many conservatives in and out of Congress. Since the 1990s, the pace of technological change has continued to accelerate, but few in Congress have the scientific or technological background to understand the new developments.
Now more than ever, the US Congress, as well as legislative bodies in other countries, need sources of unbiased and comprehensive information and analysis they can trust. When Democrats retake control of the House in 2019, they will have an opportunity to re-establish the OTA or an agency like it to assist Congress with complex science and technology issues. Ideally, this should be done by Democrats and their Republican colleagues together, so that technology assessment can once again be a bipartisan benefit to Congress.
Congress has already scheduled two days of hearings in January 2019 to consider how to respond to a changing climate. It would be well served if it could turn to its in-house technology assessment office for advice. Congress might ask a reconstituted OTA, for example, to assess the costs and benefits of implementing the provisions of the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, a bipartisan bill which was recently introduced in both the US House and Senate.
Climate change aside, the number of science and technology issues that may require legislative action continues to grow. A new OTA could also provide assistance, for example, on such issues as artificial intelligence, gene editing, cybersecurity, self-driving cars, alternative energy technologies, voting technologies, and dozens of other multifaceted issues that have, or should, come before Congress. These issues, of course, are of interest to countries other than the United States. The need for organisations in Europe and elsewhere that can provide impartial, non-partisan advice on the complicated science and technology issues of the day has never been greater.
We live in an age that seems at times to dismiss expertise, while the problems that require complex solutions grow ever greater. The OTA was an important source of clarity and understanding until it was abolished. Had we instead retained its valuable services, we could surely have reduced or avoided many of the very serious problems we now face.
In 2019, will the world prove able to heed this lesson?
William Westermeyer was a senior policy analyst for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment from 1982-95 and a principal author of the report Preparing for an Uncertain Climate.