An end to climate silence

At today's presidential press conference, New York Times reporter Mark Landler broke a trend that ran through the presidential campaign, a trend of silence about climate change.  From the transcript:

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. In his endorsement of you a few weeks ago, Mayor Bloomberg said he was motivated by the belief that you would do more to confront the threat of climate change than your opponent. Tomorrow you're going up to New York City, where you're going to, I assume, see people who are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which many people say is further evidence of how a warming globe is changing our weather. What specifically do you plan to do in a second term to tackle the issue of climate change? And do you think the political will exists in Washington to pass legislation that could include some kind of a tax on carbon?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, as you know, Mark, we can't attribute any particular weather event to climate change. What we do know is the temperature around the globe is increasing faster than was predicted even 10 years ago. We do know that the Arctic ice cap is melting faster than was predicted even five years ago. We do know that there have been extraordinarily -- there have been an extraordinarily large number of severe weather events here in North America, but also around the globe.

And I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions. And as a consequence, I think we've got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.

Now, in my first term, we doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars and trucks. That will have an impact. That will a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere. We doubled the production of clean energy, which promises to reduce the utilization of fossil fuels for power generation. And we continue to invest in potential breakthrough technologies that could further remove carbon from our atmosphere.

But we haven't done as much as we need to. So what I'm going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what can -- what more can we do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary, a discussion, the conversation across the country about, you know, what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we're passing on to future generations that's going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.

I don't know what -- what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point, because, you know, this is one of those issues that's not just a partisan issue. I also think there's -- there are regional differences. There's no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices, and you know, understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody's going to go for that.

I won't go for that.

If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that's something that the American people would support.

So you know, you can expect that you'll hear more from me in the coming months and years about how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and helps move this -- moves this agenda forward.

Q: It sounds like you're saying, though -- (off mic) -- probably still short of a consensus on some kind of -- (off mic).

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I -- that I'm pretty certain of. And look, we're -- we're still trying to debate whether we can just make sure that middle-class families don't get a tax hike. Let's see if we can resolve that. That should be easy. This one's hard. But it's important because, you know, one of the things that we don't always factor in are the costs involved in these natural disasters. We'd -- we just put them off as -- as something that's unconnected to our behavior right now, and I think what, based on the evidence, we're seeing is -- is that what we do now is going to have an impact and a cost down the road if -- if -- if we don't do something about it.

This is a welcome change from the complete silence of the last few years, but falls well short of what the American people and the world deserve.

Scientists and engineers have been in conversation with policymakers for decades.  The policymakers who reject climate science will not be convinced by another committee hearing with IPCC authors, or the next National Climate Assessment.  Scientists and engineers have said what needs to be said: humans are causing climate change, the consequences of this climate change will be dramatic and disastrous, the way to minimize the damage is to reduce global emissions of carbon pollution, and the US is one of the leading carbon polluters.  The scientific consensus covers quite a bit more than that, but that's enough for Congress to act on, and that consensus has been solid for at least a decade.

Scientists certainly have opinions about what policies would work best to stop climate change, but those are policy decisions, and scientists and engineers are not the ones who need to reach a consensus about policy.  We need Congress to find agreement (guided by scientists, engineers, economists, etc.), and we need the American people to reach and express their agreement that this is a priority.

Today is the first day of California's statewide trading system for greenhouse gases.  Many European nations are using emissions trading to reduce their role in climate change.  A similar scheme passed the US House in 2009, but bogged down in the Senate.  Congress could revive that deal any time, and if Majority Leader Harry Reid goes forward with his filibuster reform plan, the deal would clear the Senate.  But the teabagger House elected in 2010 (and largely re-elected last week) is unlikely to take it up.

Alternatively, there's talk of a carbon tax as part of negotiations over the fiscal staircase.  But getting a tax that's a) large enough and b) used to fund useful things like public transit and energy efficiency and research and deployment of new energy technology will not be easy.  And it's far from obvious that scientists and engineers are the main people with leverage on that matter.

That's not to say scientists and engineers should sit the fight out.  As investor Jeremy Grantham writes in this week's Nature:

I have yet to meet a climate scientist who does not believe that global warming is a worse problem than they thought a few years ago. The seriousness of this change is not appreciated by politicians and the public. The scientific world carefully measures the speed with which we approach the cliff and will, no doubt, carefully measure our rate of fall. But it is not doing enough to stop it. …

It is crucial that scientists take more career risks and sound a more realistic, more desperate, note on the global-warming problem. Younger scientists are obsessed by thoughts of tenure, so it is probably up to older, senior and retired scientists to do the heavy lifting. Be arrested if necessary. This is not only the crisis of your lives — it is also the crisis of our species’ existence. I implore you to be brave.

The same advice goes for investors, business owners, farmers, coastal dwellers, food eaters, and even political leaders.

The time for silence is past.


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IMHO, if the United States of America seriously curtains the energy derived from the combustion of carbon, it will cease to exist. The paths to extinction are several: collapsed industrial strength, permanent economic depression, a weaken military, and conquest by a stronger foreign power. Carbon combustion is the bedrock of advance industry, nothing has changed this, except fission of uranium. Both technologies have been essentially destroyed in the US. As a result, we have no experienced cohort of energy engineers; they are dead.
I engineered a score of nukes, two score fossil fueled power plants, and assessed advanced technology for decades, forty years of practice. I am saddened this existential survival topic was avoided by both candidates in the recent campaign.

By R. L. Hails Sr… (not verified) on 15 Nov 2012 #permalink

If climate scientists would use the same standards of certainty that are being used in physics before pronouncing their findings as facts, if they would invite their critics to share and work together to establish what there is to know, then I might be inclined to take AGW seriously. However, those things are not happening and we're being treated to a reprise of the Ptolemaic Universe. This movement is political not scientific. The ignorance and uncritical acceptance by the general population is breathtaking. The participation of the educated classes is unforgivable.

By Harry Taft (not verified) on 16 Nov 2012 #permalink

First off, you are correct that political consensus is needed before action can be taken, not that I believe it is needed. I tell you that such action is made more difficult when you couch your argument in insults to those who do not agree with you. Calling an entire movement "teabaggers" will only gain disdain and reproach. Your conceited, elevated sense of superiority is obvious, and not very appealing.

Calling people teabaggers is not constructive. Save the trash talk for HuffPost.
What about the president's position that growth is more important than curbing emissions?