Menus Subscribe Search

Hot in Here

glacier

(Photo: Jenny Leonard/Shutterstock)

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.

More From Michael White

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.