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Climate Science and the 2012 Election

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 7:41 PM GMT on January 31, 2012

Climate Science and the 2012 Election

I came from a family that subscribed, in the 1960s, to both the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Technology Review. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is the magazine that, during the Cold War, famously published a clock set a few minutes before midnight. This clock was the evaluation of those at the Bulletin of how far we were from the, well as my grade-school self understood it, the end of the world. The cause for concern for the end of the world was nuclear war.

I have had cause to recall my Cold War childhood recently when my sister told the story of my brother going to roof of his building during the 1965 Northeast Blackout with a fine bottle of wine – or perhaps, cognac, to await the end of the world. His presumption was that the blackout was the darkening of the cities to make them more difficult targets for the bombers. I remember, in the 1960s, finding comfort when the new issue of the Bulletin would come and the clock had not moved forward, and I was quite excited if it moved backwards. I was surprised, recently, when I read that Bulletin had moved the clock one minute closer to midnight because of “inadequate progress on nuclear weapons reduction and proliferation, and continuing inaction on climate change …” Looking at their website you will see that the Bulletin maintains efforts in Biosecurity, Nuclear Weapons, Nuclear Power, and Climate Change. The article by Cohen and Miller, Climate Change 2011: A Status Review of US Policy is an excellent summary of the current situation in the US. The final sentence of their essay is, “That action is extremely unlikely to occur unless climate change comes to be seen as a practical, rather than ideological, issue.”

Looking at the political landscape, climate change has fallen from the political discussion; it is a subject that cannot be talked about(some of my writings). Maxwell Boykoff has an excellent op-ed piece in the Washington Post entitled A Dangerous Shift in Obama’s ‘climate change’ Rhetoric. At the center of this piece is how climate change has implicitly been consumed in discussions of energy security, alternative energy, and clean energy. Though the warming of our climate is strongly linked to our burning of fossil fuels, there are many ways to achieve energy security and to develop alternative energy that do not address the causes of global warming. The pursuit of clean energy depends on the definition of “clean,” and this word is easily co-opted by, for example, the reduction of mercury emissions from coal.

Ultimately, we have to talk about management of the climate if we are to address the problems of human-caused global warming. We cannot address one societal challenge with the idea that we will fix the climate change problem by good fortune. When I teach this idea in class, I invoke my experience in management and, namely, it is simply not responsible management to anticipate achieving an important result without someone, some organization, having the responsibility for delivering that result.

Yet we live in a time when politicians are vilified and run out of office when they talk about climate and climate change. As Boykoff noted in his piece, President Obama avoids the climate issue because it is such a political hot button that it completely disrupts and halts progress on any issue where it is invoked. There is the recent incident where an essay on climate change was purged from a collection being put together by Newt Gingrich. I like to think that a couple of the candidates pulled out of the Republican primaries because they felt that their integrity would be too seriously comprised by having to, essentially, lie in order to obtain the trust of their voters.

Bob Inglis was voted out of Congress in 2010. Recently he wrote a piece Conservative Means Standing with Science on Climate Change. Ultimately, Inglis is arguing that if ALL costs of our energy use are incorporated into the equation, then the cost of fossil fuels would be much higher and alternative sources of energy would be more attractive. This coupled with elimination of all subsidies for energy costs, Inglis argues, would allow the market to make the right decision about energy and, hence, the climate. This full-cost accounting is enticing in its philosophical simplicity, but there are many profound implications. It does require accepting the notion that our carbon dioxide waste is harmful to the environment, the assignment of cost to that harm, and a process of linking that cost to energy sources.

As a strategy, addressing issues of clean energy, energy independence and energy security are more politically pragmatic than addressing issues of climate change. They offer a path towards addressing climate change; they are part of the best-we-can-do-at-this-time strategy. However, our inability to actually talk about solving the climate change problem means that we will not address the problem; we will elevate our risks; we will continue to impact negatively our economic and technological competitiveness.

It has fascinated me over the years at how both elected officials and government appointees make far more sense in what they say after they are outside of their government positions. I was a minor manager in the government, and even at my level, I was motivated to saying and doing things that were not the best thing to do to address a problem. Rather, what I did was the expedient and possible and it did advance the problem, but it was not either the best or most cost effective decision. This places the post-government truth teller, like Inglis, into one of the most important roles in advancing difficult problems like climate change. It also, however, points out the stunning inefficiency and ineffectiveness of our politically based determination of priorities in the development of knowledge-based environmental policy. We look knowledge in the face and deny its existence. We make our convenient arguments for the need for more research in the ill-posed pursuit of the illusive final facts. We fall into the diversion-motivated process of always asking for the next piece of information in what can be a never ending series of information discovery.

I found the October/November 1969 Technology Review in a box of Space-Age memorabilia I packed up from childhood. This issue was entitled “Man Among the Planets,” and the first article was “The Modification of the Planet Earth by Man,” by Gordon J. F. MacDonald. MacDonald in 1969 argued that we had already altered the planet, and that changes produced by humans were already at the scale “caused by nature.” He warned that we needed to do research into large-scale, man-made, and inadvertent changes to our environment. He called for the development of climate prediction. Since 1969 we have taken the observations, we have developed the theory, and we have determined unequivocally that the Earth has warmed and that we the fuel-using people are the primary reason of the warming. As MacDonald called for in 1969, we have placed a lot of emphasis on climate and environmental research, and the results of that research have provided actionable information – knowledge. We look at that knowledge in eye and, as a society, we deny it. We look away. Perhaps, if we look away then it is not really there.

Looking forward to the 2012 election, I don’t expect that climate change will be an oft articulated issue. The issue out front will be jobs, and the prominent link will be made between the exploitation of fossil fuels, new jobs, and energy security. Our approach to climate change will remain quietly in the hands of those savvy enough to use the unique knowledge provided by climate projections and those post-government truth tellers who no longer have to look away.

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.