In the same week that the country’s most respected scientific organization released a series of reports underscoring the need for action on climate change, some of the nation’s most accomplished climate scientists testified in Congress on the vitriol and abuse they have faced simply for doing their jobs: conducting research and publishing unavoidable conclusions.
The National Research Council, or NRC, part of the National Academy of Sciences, published reports on the state of climate science, strategies for mitigating some of the effects of climate change and on ways to adapt to unstoppable climate change impacts, but they made no mention of the personal price scientists have paid to acquire the knowledge.
The intersection between climate science and politics may be inevitable given the causes and effects involved, but the scientific establishment has rarely—if ever—faced the kinds of issues facing climatologists today.
“Given the relevancy of their work to national priorities, our best scientists are increasingly drawn into the political arena,” said Congressman Edward Markey (D—Mass.), the chairman of the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming. “Disagreements over policies have led some to target both the science and the scientists themselves.”
The first of the three NRC reports—which were requested by Congress several years ago—lays out the current understanding of climate systems and the best guesses for the coming decades of temperature rise, sea level rise and other impacts.
Although there is no doubt on the substantial warming that is already occurring, the report does cite the need for further research into many areas. It concludes that “the nation needs a flexible, comprehensive, and integrative climate change science enterprise, one that not only contributes to our fundamental understanding of climate change but also informs and expands America’s climate choices.”
In the second report on mitigation, the authors discuss ways to try and keep warming away from the most catastrophic possibilities. To do so, the report says, the country should set a greenhouse gas emission “budget” covering the next several decades.
One model suggests between 170 and 200 gigatons of CO2-equivalent (carbon dioxide along with other gases like methane and hydrofluorocarbons) for the period between 2012 and 2050. The US currently emits about 7 gigatons of CO2 equivalent per year, meaning that without drastic emissions reductions—at least 50 percent below 1990 levels—that budget would be spent well before the period in question ends.
Thus, to achieve anything close to the needed reductions, the NRC recommends an economy-wide carbon pricing system, like that in the American Power Act that was recently introduced in the Senate, as well as dramatic investments in clean energy and efficiency.
In terms of adaptation, the third report cites the need to build future infrastructure with a changing climate in mind, and build in methods to deal with problems that previously did not exist. For example, an early warning system for severe heat waves in Philadelphia has saved an estimated 117 lives since its implementation three years ago. As extreme weather events and rising sea levels change the lives of US citizens, such new ideas will have to be implemented quickly.
The authors conclude that “the federal government should play a significant role as a catalyst and coordinator…. The executive branch, in consultation with Congress, [should] develop a national adaptation strategy.”
Risks and what to do about them
That final conclusion highlights an important distinction noted in the House committee hearing:
“For a very long time there was an unwritten social contract between science and society, and especially the Congress, where [scientists’] job was risk—what can happen and what are the odds—and your [Congres’s] job was what to do about it,” said Stephen Schneider, a professor at Stanford University.
“And this water gets muddied… and then what happens is it becomes a political story, and the risk part and the risk management part get lost in the middle and the public is confused. Unfortunately that’s the state we’re in now.”
The political controversies surrounding climate change have forced the scientists to defend not only their research but also themselves. Schneider and others at the committee hearing described some of the abuse they have faced simply because they do research on the climate and conclude that it is warming, or that sea levels will rise, or that oceans are already acidifying at alarming rates.
“There are flurries of very nasty emails,” Schneider said, including messages calling him a traitor and asking for his execution. “I get those fairly frequently,” he said.
Ben Santer, a climate research scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, said he has had people ring his doorbell late at night to leave dead animals on his doorstep and to shout curses at him.
“I firmly believe that I would now be leading a different life if my research suggested that there was no human effect on climate,” Santer said. “I would not be the subject of Congressional inquiries, Freedom of Information Act requests or email threats. I would not need to be concerned about the safety of my family.”
In the circumstance, many scientists have decided to fight back, inserting themselves into more political and advocacy positions than is traditional. Earlier this month, 255 scientists wrote a letter published in the journal Science calling for an end to the “McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution,” and in January a group of researchers published a paper calling for an end to mountaintop removal mining.
The attempts to influence policy, though, do not compare with the personal attacks or political moves that many say are simply intended to intimidate researchers acting in good faith.
Most recently, the attorney general of Virginia filed subpoenas requesting correspondence and detailed information from the University of Virginia regarding the research of former faculty member Michael Mann, now of Penn State. The attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, is now under attack from multiple angles on an apparent attempt to meddle in the process of scientific inquiry.
The University has been given until May 27 to respond to the subpoenas.
“It is the most clearly abusive [thing] that I have seen for a long time, basically trying to treat scientists, Nobel Prize winners, as members of the Corleone family,” said Congressman Jay Inslee (D—Wash.) during the committee hearing.
“I have to say I’m offended at somebody politicizing science like this, in an obvious attempt to intimidate people who are trying to get at the truth.”
Schneider said that this kind of practice might discourage young people from going into science, if honestly derived results can put one in such predicaments. This is occurring at just the time when, as the NRC reports indicate, more rigorous scientific inquiry and understanding is urgently needed.
“By and large, this has never happened before,” he said. “We have always had a spirited debate. It was always civil, it was always bipartisan, and it has now gotten to a point where things have become accusatory and highly ideological, and that’s very unfortunate.”
(Photo: US Navy)