The average air temperature in the United States has leapt two degrees in the last five decades. Yawn. Coastal regions in the country are disappearing because of rising sea levels. Hit the snooze button. The already-arid Southwest is becoming drier. Snore.
Whether it's paralysis, fatigue or an indication of the arrival of "post-climate times," a major National Research Council mid-May report warning about the severe dangers of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions seems to have barely registered as a blip on the Richter scale of environmental urgency.
Perhaps that shouldn't be so shocking. After all, Congress, the very entity that requested the report, is pretty much punting on the carbon issue. And the Obama administration is focusing on other energy solutions, having seemingly flushed once-optimal options such as cap and trade or a carbon tax.
Several years ago, the Natural Research Council, a branch of the renowned National Academy of Sciences, was tasked with laying out steps and strategies that policymakers could adopt to mitigate the effects of climate change. The just-released "America's Climate Choices" is the fifth and final volume examining all aspects of tackling global warming.
While the amalgam of 22 academics, climate scientists, think tank leaders, businesspeople and politicians involved in creating the latest report herald the idea of a price on carbon and present a series of broad recommendations for U.S. decision-makers, they do not outline any specific policy recipes.
The authors defend their non-prescriptive approach. In-the-know observers, however, view it as a signature drawback because it highlights the classic divide between scientific reality and political courage.
Nothing comes to fruition because scientists are traditionally skittish about offering policy prescriptions and legislators are equally twitchy about acting on groundbreaking science that is often too complicated for them to fully grasp.
"It's a fabulous report with top-caliber participants," Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser with the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center, told SolveClimate News in an interview. "But simply issuing reports is not adequate anymore. My frustration is that the traditional method of communicating science is not gaining traction politically. It has to be done in innovative ways that engage stakeholders and legislators."
Objectivity Versus Advocacy
The foreword to "America’s Climate Choices" clearly spells out that the authors deliberately avoided being policy prescriptive because some scientists believe "recommending a particular option would carry them beyond objectivity and into advocacy."
Peggy Shepard, one of several non-scientists who served on the committee that issued the latest report, told SolveClimate News that was a logical decision.
"With scientists, their job isn't to think about the politics or policy," said Shepard, the executive director of New York City's WE ACT for Environmental Justice. "We wanted to lay out options and scenarios and then describe the implications for making any of those choices."
For instance, she said, the committee didn't want to "turn off half the country" by suggesting that cap and trade or a carbon tax or no regulation at all was the one and only solution.
"We definitely thought about the political environment," Shepard said. "But remember, when we started on this the Obama administration was just getting started."
Economy Trouncing Climate
Shepard is convinced the report's message about acting on climate now would have resonated loudly and been the focus of non-stop chatter on Capitol Hill and in board rooms if the timing had been different.
"We'd like a bigger splash, we'd like everybody to be talking about it," she said. "But that just isn't the reality in this economic and legislative environment when all the talk is about jobs and the economy."
She pointed out that the committee began deliberations more than two years ago when climate change was a hot-button issue everywhere. For example, Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Ed Markey of Massachusetts were on the verge of celebrating an American Clean Energy and Security Act cap-and-trade victory in the House.
"When climate change legislation was fairly active, we thought we could play a role," Shepard said. "In many respects, some of the people on our panel did think what we were doing was bold. I don't know if you can say the report is not aggressive enough. Given the economic crisis and the stalemate in Congress, people have become inured to this discussion."
Shepard praised the report's authors for broaching such issues as adaptation and the need for the federal government to become a major energy research and development force.
"This report has been very straightforward in pointing out that climate change is an urgent issue and that signs of it are occurring right now," she said. "Our goal is to advise the government that it must immediately begin coordinating activities that will lead to a reduction in greenhouse gases."
The report reflects a deep dive on the part of scientists and other stakeholders who understand this country’s limits and challenges on the global warming front, she said.