Twenty of the nation's leading climate scientists called on President Obama today to take a more forceful role in fighting climate change, and they urged Congress to strengthen the American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) climate bill, headed for the House floor as early as this week.
The ACES bill is an important foundation, and it must be enacted this year, "but at its best, it will be only a first step in the direction scientists now recognize as necessary to protect local and regional climates," the scientists write in an open letter to the president and Congress.
"Our purpose is to call attention to the large difference between what U.S. politics now seems capable of enacting and what scientists understand is necessary to prevent climatic disruption and protect the human future.
"We urge President Obama to exercise maximum personal leadership beginning now to ensure that the strongest possible legislation emerges from the Congress."
Many of the signers have been recommending action on greenhouse gases for decades, and they have been frustrated as politics and economics time and again trumped the health of the planet. George Woodwell, director emeritus of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and an organizer of the letter, is one of them.
Woodwell saw hope in 1992 when the United States joined 179 nations in signing the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The countries agreed then to stabilize greenhouse gas levels, but those levels kept rising.
"Even if we stabilize the atmosphere at this moment, we have a lot of catching up to do," he says.
"We're in real trouble because we have changes under way right now that are completely unacceptable. We have droughts now on every continent. Just the changes in precipitation represent at terrible, very big burden on civilization. It threatens the food supply of the world at the time we have 6.7 billion people and the population is still increasing. We can go on to talk about the glaciers and the heat waves."
In Woodwell's view, an effective climate bill must first stop increasing the amount of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere and then begin reducing it – fast.
"We need a massive program of moving away from fossil fuels. We need to end coal. Coal has no redeeming feature. We need to shift to renewable energy virtually immediately. We need very strong leadership."
Stanford's Stephen H. Schneider, another signer of the letter, adds that the climate bill should supply more money for developing alternative energy and energy efficiency technology.
Also, no industry should be allowed to opt out of emissions caps permanently, he says, and temporary exemptions should be as short as possible.
Internationally, he says, the bill should find ways to help developing countries "leapfrog over the dirty industrial revolution technologies like coal burning and internal combustion engines."
Scientists and academics have traditionally avoided public calls for policy action and instead counted on their research to speak for itself. "It is literally trained out of many scientists by their advisers and colleagues," Schneider explains. "Many scientists would rather not play in the ugly arena of realpolitik and dueling advocates – can't blame them."
In recent years, though, the men and women studying climate change and the effects of greenhouse gases have become more and more worried – and more outspoken. As Schneider puts it, "I have accepted that if I don't, then who is to do it for me?"
NASA's chief climate scientist, James Hansen, is perhaps the most vocal advocate for climate action. He wrote on Yale's Environment 360 web site today about how the Obama administration was under political pressure to sacrifice its opposition to mountaintop mining in order to win support from coal state lawmakers on the ACES bill.
"A sad political bargain that will never get us the change we need on mountaintop removal, coal or the climate," he called it.
In March, more than 2,500 international climate experts attending an emergy climate science summit issued a rare plea to the world's governments to take action on climate change.
They talked about the worst case scenarios that they were already seeing and the dangers of "irreversible climatic shifts" if politicians didn't stand up to vested interested and take "vigorously and widely implemented" steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Three months later, the open letter to Obama and Congress talks about many of the same concerns.
The U.S. scientists write that limiting CO2 to 450 parts per million isn't good enough. At that level, the global temperature would rise about 2 degrees Celsius.
"We and many others are of the view that these objectives are inadequate to sustain the integrity of global climate and to hold the risk of ruinous climatic change to an acceptably low level," the scientists write.
"It is essential that the Waxman-Markey bill, strengthened wherever possible and certainly not weakened, advance into law rapidly. It is also essential that it become the basis for a serious, continuing, and urgent effort on the part of the President to lead the American public into recognition of the scale of the climatic disruption so that the U.S. will embrace still stronger policies to do what we know from scientific investigation is necessary to prevent disastrous climatic alteration."
The signers of the letter include Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and environmental studies; Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick; and scientists from Harvard, Stanford, Penn State, Woods Hole, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the University of Minnesota, the University of Vermont, the University of Montana, the Byrd Polar Research Center, the Climate institute in Washington, D.C., the United Nations Foundation, the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, and the Cary Institute of Ecosystems Studies.
"I think that what unites us in this open letter is a strong sense of urgency, and a feeling of foreboding if humanity cannot speediy come to agreement and act effectively by implementing large and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions," Richard Somerville of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography wrote in an email.
"Carbon tax vs. cap and trade is one of many tactical aspects to be argued about, but the strategic goal is clear. The continuing rise in atmospheric greenhouse gas amounts must stop."