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Resistance to Climate Change Is Killing the Government’s Ability to Use Science

• May 23, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Jenny Leonard/Shutterstock)

Legislative opposition to climate change isn’t just keeping us from having a proper conversation about the problem. It’s destroying our ability to act.

One of the main reasons our government invests in scientific research is so that we can apply the findings to our nation’s problems. We do this, in part, thanks to the vision of Vannevar Bush, the top government science official, who coordinated the massive research effort during World War II. In 1945, Bush urged for a bigger and more sustained federal investment in science, writing that “since health, well-being, and security are proper concerns of Government, scientific progress is, and must be, of vital interest to Government.” He argued that we needed government research institutions to execute a national science policy aimed at understanding and solving crucial challenges that face our society.

In the spirit of Bush’s vision, Congress established the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) in 1990 to “assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” Our government also funds and conducts climate change research through its major science agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA. This federal investment in climate change research is working as intended: We now know more than ever about the causes and consequences of climate change, and the possible ways to avoid or adapt to it. But the work of our science agencies has provoked a furious backlash, one that goes beyond mere debate over the risks we face and the solutions we should pursue. This backlash of climate change denial is killing our ability to act, by attacking the very research institutions that we established to help us solve our problems.

Rather than use these assessments to develop evidence-guided policies to address the urgent challenges identified, our elected officials are attempting to kill the messenger by attacking the resources and the credibility of those institutions.

Our institutions that conduct climate change research are doing their job, and the warning lights are flashing. Earlier this month, the USGCRP issued its Congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment. The message was clear: “The observed warming and other climatic changes are triggering wide-ranging impacts in every region of our country and throughout our economy.” We’re engaging in some efforts to mitigate these impacts, but “current implementation efforts are insufficient to avoid increasingly negative social, environmental, and economic consequences.”

The National Assessment follows on the heels of the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, another institution supported in part by U.S. funds, and whose purpose is to provide nations with the latest technical information on the risks and impacts of climate change. The IPCC reported that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal” and that “changes in climate have caused impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans.” There are steps we can take to mitigate these impacts, but if we don’t act now, we will dramatically increase the cost and difficulty of dealing with climate change in the future.

As we learned this week, some consequences are already irreversible. Two U.S. research teams, funded by NASA and the NSF to evaluate the impact of climate change on Antarctica’s glaciers, reported that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is now headed for inevitable collapse. Over the coming centuries, the melting ice will be enough to cause a catastrophic sea level rise.

We’ve invested heavily in research institutions in order to understand the risks of climate change; those institutions are now telling us the situation is dire. But rather than use these assessments to develop evidence-guided policies to address the urgent challenges identified, our elected officials are attempting to kill the messenger by attacking the resources and the credibility of those institutions.

Two weeks ago the U.S. House Appropriations Committee voted to pass an appropriations bill that singles out climate change research for cuts. In this bill, the NSF would get a total budget increase of 3.2 percent, well above the expected rate of inflation, but the NSF Geosciences Directorate, which funded one of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet studies, is deliberately excluded from this increase. NASA would be slated for a modest boost, but that would largely be targeted to planetary science programs focused on the Solar System, with offsetting cuts to earth science. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association budget would decline relative to inflation, and climate change research at the agency would get reduced by $36 million. The cuts to climate change research in this bill are in line with the spending priorities laid out last month by Paul Ryan and the House Budget Committee, and with earlier efforts to chip away at funding for climate change research.

Along with attacks on the funding of our major sources of information about climate, legislators are also working to discredit those sources. They openly mock climate change in Congressional hearings. Senator Marco Rubio, considering a run for the presidency, accused climate scientists of cherry-picking their data, while in 2009, Paul Ryan said that climate scientists were intentionally misleading the public. The problem isn’t limited to national legislators; state legislatures in Oklahoma and Wyoming are torpedoing new, state-of-the-art science education standards over their climate change content. And in 2012, the North Carolina legislature famously banned climate-change-based predictions of sea level rise in plans for coastal development projects.

This is keeping us away from any serious debate about how we should respond to the results of the climate change research that our government commissioned. We pursued Vannevar Bush’s vision and built world-class institutions to provide us with science to guide our problem solving. That investment is wasted if we dismiss the results, and we’ll face the future without the technical support we need.

Michael White
Michael White is a systems biologist at the Department of Genetics and the Center for Genome Sciences and Systems Biology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where he studies how DNA encodes information for gene regulation. He co-founded the online science pub The Finch and Pea. Follow him on Twitter @genologos.

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