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Climate Adaptation and the Drunkard’s Search

Digging Theories in Environmental Policy and Management Seminar


Ron Brunner

University of Colorado Boulder

Ronald.Brunner@Colorado.edu


(1) The topical area of my research and why it’s important

 
My recent research and practice focuses on policies for adapting to climate change in the U.S.  This topical area is important because extreme weather events have contributed to increasing losses of lives, human and natural infrastructure, and other things of value in recent decades.  Climate change has already begun to exacerbate such losses through more frequent and intense floods, high winds heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and the like at the local and regional levels.  We can mitigate such losses by adapting to climate change.  This research is also important to me for other reasons:
 
·         Climate adaptation policy is the latest in a series of topical areas of policy research and practice intended to challenge and improve my knowledge and skills as a policy scientist.  The series includes energy, poverty, civilian space, science, education, and natural resource policy.
 
·         Climate adaptation policy is an ideal “laboratory” for understanding and developing adaptive governance, a pattern of governance that has been emerging more or less independently in a number of policy areas in response to the increasing failures of scientific management.[1] 
 
·         Adaptive governance has worked to advance common interests on small scales, despite the dysfunctional politics characteristic of our time.  The challenge is scaling out and scaling up what works from a common interest standpoint.[2]

 

(2) The theoretical approach(es) used in my research

 

For four decades I have relied on the policy sciences developed by Harold D. Lasswell and his collaborators.  They include most notably Myres McDougal on law and jurisprudence and Abraham Kaplan on epistemology, morals, and ethics in the tradition of American pragmatism. The core of the policy sciences, its central theory, is a comprehensive conceptual framework in functional terms for mapping and self-orientation in any social context, together with propositions in those functional terms for formulating hypotheses about the particular context.[3]  As science, the aim of the policy sciences is not prediction, but freedom through insight.  For example, the discovery of an unconscious impulse or an impersonal mechanism leaves us free to take it into account in making choices and decisions.  As policy, the strategy is to guide the focus of attention of participants in decision to bring out whatever potential for sound judgment exists in the situation.  The recommendation is to serve common interests, not special interests, in each situation.  The overriding aim is the realization of human dignity to the fullest extent possible.
 
I use the framework and propositions of central theory to evaluate relevant knowledge from any source and to integrate what is useful into my evolving understanding of the policy sciences.  Evaluation includes translation into functional terms for comparison with relevant parts of my current understanding.  This frequently reveals functional equivalents disguised in new vocabulary.  Integration includes enriching parts of my understanding through comparisons, and, more importantly, filling gaps in my understanding of central theory as a whole.  For example, apart from Lasswell and his collaborators, among the more generally useful sources for me have been the early Walter Lippmann, Edward Levi, Herbert Simon, James March, Martin Landau, and Donald Campbell, in addition to many others in various disciplines and professions.  The utility of these sources stems in part from the basic assumption, shared with the policy sciences, that human beings act from their own perspectives, which fall far short of being complete or completely objective in different ways.  In other words, no one is omniscient. 
 
For applications of such knowledge, the framework and propositions of central theory help minimize tendencies to overlook or misconstrue what is important in resolving problems in particular contexts.  This is arguably the central problem in practical policy inquiry because it is so pervasive.  At the individual level, as Lasswell once put it, “Basic psychological mechanisms tend to stabilize, even to rigidify, our perceptions of the self in relation to the environment.”  For example, by the mechanism of generalization, “[c]umulative success tends to narrow the context that is allowed to emerge at the focus of attention.”[4]   Similarly, “The tendency of every group is to narrow its frame of reference, chiefly because quick and easy individual payoffs so frequently come by adding minor and rather obvious amplifications to the field of common reference.  Hence the focus of attention needs to be directed to neglected areas.”[5]  Central theory is designed to direct attention to neglected areas systematically. 
 
The unsystematic alternative is to rely piecemeal on selected concepts or theoretical “lenses” to guide the focus of attention.  This often leads to replication of the central problem in practical policy inquiry.   The central problem is epitomized by the story of the drunkard’s search, which has circulated in the social sciences for at least a half century.  In one telling, it is “the story of the drunkard searching under a street lamp for his house key, which he had dropped some distance away.  Asked why he didn’t look where he had dropped it, he replied, ‘It’s lighter here!’”[6]  The drunkard’s search is bounded by light from the street lamp, despite his awareness at some level of consciousness that the key lies elsewhere.  Like the street lamp, the piecemeal application of concepts and theories directs attention to only part of context, but not necessarily the part where the solution is to be found.
 

 (3) The theoretical and practical lessons learned from the work and theory to date

 
My experience is that central theory in the policy sciences has long been satisfactory for the integration and application of knowledge on behalf of common interests.   This reaffirms a number of key points in the core literature:
 
·         First, “our intellectual tools” have been “sufficiently sharp” to enable us to address the fundamental problems of our time, as Lasswell demonstrated in his presidential address to the APSA in 1956.[7]  Within a rich theoretical tradition, the priority task is not developing new intellectual tools, but applying the intellectual tools we have on behalf of common interests.
 
·         Second, “The confrontation of conventional with functional images … is one of the chief latent contributions of science to policy any body politic.”[8]  Similarly, “the intellectual serves the public interest when he confronts conventional images and conformities with functional conceptions and empirical findings.”[9] [162:65] 
 
·         Third, context matters:  “If modern historical and social scientific inquiry has underlined any lesson, it is that the significance of any detail depends upon its linkages to the context of which it is a part.  Hence the evaluation of the role of any institutional practice calls for a vast labor of data gathering and theoretical analysis.”[10]
 
These and related points are not widely understood in the social sciences.  Even those who consider themselves informed about Lasswell’s work tend to translate pieces of the policy sciences into their own frames of reference and to dismiss the resulting straw man according to their own criteria.[11]  In a recent opinion, two political scientists claim that the social sciences are still dominated by a hypothetico-deductive model of science inspired by physics and chemistry.  They are still searching for alternatives.[12] 
 
With respect to climate adaptation policy, central theory in the policy sciences helped direct my attention to some of what was overlooked or misconstrued too narrowly in conventional wisdom, and to draw the attention of practitioners to it beginning about 18 months ago.  It was assumed that the role of the federal government was “getting science to the street” in the form of climate-change scenarios for planning at the local level.  From a decision process perspective, conventional wisdom neglected other inputs to the planning (or intelligence) process, subsequent decision outcomes in addition to plans, and actual reductions in net losses or vulnerability to climate change, insofar as “good planning” displaced this policy goal.  Additional considerations were neglected from the perspective of the problem-orientation and socio-political dynamics.[13]
 
This policy inquiry directed the attention of certain leaders in the field to what had been neglected: some of them have begun to take it into account.  Based on a workshop two months ago, practitioners on the ground, proceeding pragmatically to reduce net losses and vulnerability, have begun to discover on their own what had been neglected.  In particular, they have begun to understand the limitations of a preoccupation with planning and to learn the politics of finding common ground by practicing it.  Finding common ground is often necessary to mobilize resources necessary to implement the plans made.[14]
 

(4) The unanswered questions and the future direction in the area

 
Practitioners on the ground and their advisors have evaluated their progress (or the lack of it) out of necessity.  But they are still handicapped by standard assumptions about program evaluation that are inappropriate for this topical area.  Yet evaluation (or appraisal) of what works step by step is necessary to accelerate progress within and across community-based initiatives.  
 
·         One unanswered question is whether or to what extent they will build on methods of evaluation successfully applied in community-based initiatives in natural-disaster mitigation,[15] which are nearly functionally equivalent to community-based initiatives in climate adaptation.  
 
·         Another unanswered question is how to improve networking or clearinghouse functions by which each initiative can learn from what has worked (and what hasn’t) in other communities.   This is critical for scaling out and scaling up what has worked in any community-based initiative. 
 
Answers to both questions depend on a continuing flow of full case studies that have been independently verified.  We have a handful of excellent case studies, but we need a continuing flow of them.  Theory is adequate to guide the search for answers;  most of the empirical inquiry remains to be done. 


End Notes
[1] On scientific management see Judith A. Merkle, Ideology and Management: The Legacy of the International Scientific Management Movement (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1980).
[2] On adaptive governance, see Ronald D. Brunner, “Adaptive Governance as a Reform Strategy,” Policy Sciences 43 (2010), 301-341; and Ronald D. Brunner and Amanda H. Lynch, Adaptive Governance and Climate Change (Boston: American Meteorological Society, 2010).
[3] The core sources include Harold D. Lasswell and Abraham Kaplan, Power and Society: A Framework for Political Inquiry (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1950); Harold D. Lasswell, A Pre-View of Policy Sciences (New York: Elsevier, 1971): and Harold D. Lasswell and Myres S. McDougal. Jurisprudence for a Free Society: Studies in Law, Science and Policy (New Haven, CT, and Dordrecht, Netherlands: New Haven Press and Martinus Nijhoff, 1992). 
[4] Lasswell, A Pre-View of Policy Sciences, 84.
[5] Lasswell, A Pre-View of Policy Sciences, 65; my emphasis.   
[6] Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science (San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company, 1964), 11. 
[7] Harold D. Lasswell, “The Political Science of Science: An Inquiry into the Possible Reconciliation of Mastery and Freedom.”  American Political Science Review L (December, 1956), 961-979, at 961.
[8] Lasswell and McDougal, Jurisprudence for a Free Society, 389.
[9] Harold D. Lasswell, “The Public Interest: Proposing Principles of Content and Procedure,” in Carl J. Friedrich, ed., The Public Interest, Nomos V (New York: Atherton, 1962), 54-79, at 65.
[10] Harold D. Lasswell, Daniel Lerner, and Ithiel de Sola Pool, “Political Symbols,” in The Comparative Study of Symbols: An Introduction (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1952), 1-25 at 1; their emphasis.
[11] For example, James Farr, Jacob S. Hacker, and Nicole Kazee, “The Policy Scientist of Democracy: The Discipline of Harold D. Lasswell,” American Political Science Review 100 (November, 2006):579-587. For a critique, see Ronald D. Brunner, “The Policy Scientist of Democracy Revisited.”  Policy Sciences 41 (2008), 3-19.  For another critique of misinterpretations of the policy sciences, see Matthew R. Auer, “Policy Sciences in Critical Perspective,”  in Jack Rabin, Gerald J. Miller, and W. Bartley Hildreth, eds., Handbook of Public Administration (London: Taylor & Francis, 2007), 541-562.  
[12] Kevin A. Clarke and David M. Primo, Overcoming ‘Physics Envy,’” New York Times (April 1, 2012), SR9.
[13] Ronald D. Brunner, “Climate Adaptation and the Drunkard’s Search,” (March 31, 2011), a revision of the keynote address at the 29th Annual Institute of the Society of Policy Scientists, Yale Law School, New Haven, CT, October 15, 2010. 
[14] Ron Brunner and John Nordgren, “Climate Adaptation as an Evolutionary Process: A White Paper, (Draft, March 28, 2012), based on the Kresge Grantees and Practitioners Workshop on Climate Change Adaptation workshop, February 7-9, 2012, at the Hotel Monaco, Portland, OR.   
[15] Ronald D. Brunner, “Evaluating Progress in Adapting to Climate Change” (November 11, 2011), a revision of a paper presented at Practical Solutions for a Warming World: AMS Conference on Climate Adaptation, 18-20 July 2011, Asheville, NC. 
 

 

 

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