Getting on the agenda

This week’s reading looks at agenda setting and policy formulation.  Peters says a problem gets on the government’s agenda if 1) it affects a lot of people or has intense or visible effects; 2) it parallels or expands on previous issues; 3) it can be linked to a national symbol; 4) it is beyond the private sector and can only be solved by government; 5) there is a policy or technology to solve it.

Right now climate change is such a problem.  On September 21, along with 400,000 other Americans, I participated in the People’s Climate March.  The purpose of the march was to demonstrate popular support for putting climate change at the top of the agenda.  Climate change meets all of Peters’ requirements.  It affects large numbers of people, and the effects can be intense.  Carbon pollution is similar to previous environmental challenges such as DDT or the ozone hole.  For a long time climate change was symbolized by a polar bear, but the EPA is now using the symbol of a boy with asthma in a doctor’s office for its carbon pollution standards.  Carbon emissions are a prime example of an externality, as oil and coal companies pollute the air and water basically for free. And there are both engineering and policy technologies to solve it: renewable energy such as solar and wind, and a carbon tax.

Right now the country is in the policy formulation stage of putting climate change on the agenda. There are four major approaches to lowering carbon emissions: cap and trade; regulation; subsidizing alternative energy; and a carbon tax.  Of these, cap and trade has already been defeated in Congress, and alternative energy subsidies don’t seem viable despite the fact the oil industry is heavily subsidized.  The EPA has proposed regulations for power plant emissions, because this is something the Obama administration can do without going through Congress.  The fourth proposal is a carbon tax to correct the externalities. Some groups are proposing a tax and dividend, in which oil and coal companies would pay the tax, with proceeds refunded to taxpayers. That would be popular, but whether it could pass Congress is another question.

Social science and natural science

This week we read several articles about social sciences and how they can work with natural sciences to enact successful policy outcomes.  I was very glad to read the editorial in Conservation Biology that called for integrating and mainstreaming social sciences into natural science research and communication.

Such an integration may not be as easy as it might appear.  In reading that editorial and the chapter from Contemporary Sociological Theory, along with the readings from the IPCC our first week, one big cultural divide is apparent.  While natural sciences like to be as certain as possibly in data analysis – even to the point of quantifying the level of uncertainty as was done in the IPCC report – social sciences do not do the same thing.  Instead, they take an approach based on various schools of thought, and using them as lenses to make sense of observations, as the sociology chapter discusses functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, etc.

One reason for this difference in approach may be that social sciences typically study humans, while natural sciences study the natural world.  Natural sciences have traditionally broken that world down into parts in an effort to gain an understanding of how they work, while social sciences, while focusing on different spheres such as micro and macro, do not typically practice such reductionism.  For one thing, that might require experiments on humans that are unethical and would never pass the Institutional Review Board, such as the Stanford prison experiment.  Yet, even natural scientists are starting to move away from reductionism to take a more systems approach, looking at how all the pieces work together, and to their surprise, they are finding emergent properties showing that the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

I think it would be interesting to the two fields to try each other’s approach.  Are there broad camps or approaches that can be identified within natural sciences, much as we see functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism?  Are there ethical ways research on humans could be broken down to quantify the pieces of each part of the experiment?  Vaske aned Donnelly tried to do this in their research on values, attitudes, and behaviors, and perhaps I didn’t understand the statistics, but I really didn’t see how their conclusions told us anything we don’t already know – that values shape attitudes and both shape behavior.

It may be that each area of science has its own subject of study and methodology, but that the two can work together to help shape policy.  Science about human behavior can tell us how to best shape policy and communication to get people to lower carbon emissions, preserve wild spaces, and stop polluting, which science about natural systems can tell us if these efforts are actually working or not, and how efforts in one part of the ecosystem affect other parts.  Both approaches will be vital to preserving ecosystems that are increasingly under threat.

Stages model of policy making

Peters’ discussion of the Stages Model of policy making was very interesting.  This model sees policy as going through five stages: agenda setting, formulation, legitimation, implementation, and evaluation.  Peters’ main point is that the model does a better job of describing than explaining, and that it doesn’t reflect the degree of conflict at each stage.

I completely agree with that analysis.  Over the past four years, I had the opportunity to work with the Ohio staff of The Humane Society of the United States as it contributed to several laws and regulations regarding animals in the state.  The law I worked on most was to regulate ownership of dangerous wild animals.  That law passed through all the stages that the model predicts.  Agenda setting started years previous as Ohio had become known for its exotic animal auction and large private menageries.  Several incidents occurred such as when a man’s tiger killed his 2-year-old grandson, and another man’s bear killed his teenage caretaker.

But nothing was as high profile as the case of Terry Thompson in Zanesville, who released 60 big cats, bears, and primates before committing suicide, leaving police to kill all but six animals.  This triggering event set the agenda to finally push through legislation.  The formulation was done mainly in the Senate Agriculture Committee by Sen. Troy Balderson, and legitimation provided by directors of Ohio’s five accredited zoos.  The law gave implementation to the Ohio Department of Agriculture advised by a board of stakeholders that negotiated recommendations for standards such as cage size and veterinary care for the animals.

The entire process was wracked with conflict. Hundreds of exotic animal owners filled the chambers at every hearing.  Once the law passed, this group sued the state twice to have it declared unconstitutional and lost both times.  They clearly felt themselves to be the losers.  But the fact is, societies change, and laws must change with them.  There are more tigers in captivity in the United States than in all of the wild, and too many suffered in horrible conditions under private ownership.  Most people feel animal welfare counts, and I am very proud to say that my contribution to this law helped dozens of exotic animals get moved to accredited sanctuaries.