Academy Addresses Congress’s Questions; But Question: How Many on Capitol Hill Listening?

The Congress that this year received advice from the National Academy of Sciences on climate change is a very different one from the Congress that three years ago authorized nearly $6 million for the study. Whether anyone on Capitol Hill was listening appears uncertain three months after America’s Climate Choices was released.

Step back for a moment into early 2008 — another geologic era in Washington politics time — and you’ll find Congress asking the National Academy of Sciences for some advice.

What does the latest research say about climate change? More to the point, what should the nation do about it? Inquiring minds — that is, Congress — wanted to know.

Policy wonks out there can point to some relevant language from Public Law 110-161:

Of the amounts provided for the “National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Operations, Research and Facilities,” $5,856,600 shall be for necessary expenses in support of an agreement between the Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Academy of Sciences under which the National Academy of Sciences shall establish the Climate Change Study Committee to investigate and study the serious and sweeping issues relating to global climate change and make recommendations regarding what steps must be taken and what strategies must be adopted in response to global climate change, including the science and technology challenges thereof.

It’s striking now that Congress even budgeted nearly $6 million for this study, although it did so before Wall Street teetered on the brink, the national economy tanked, and budgets tightened everywhere.

The real point is that Congress was asking for some substantive guidance — from the nation’s scientific establishment, no less. That appeal made this study more than just another review of the science behind the globe’s warming climate. As Albert Carnesale and William Chameides, the chair and vice chair of the effort, would write when the report, America’s Climate Choices, was finally released this past May by the National Research Council:

“Unlike most previous studies, this study looks across the full range of response options and the interactions among them …. (and) provides action-oriented advice on what can be done to respond most effectively to climate change.”

America’s Climate Choices arrived in the in-boxes of a very different Congress from the one that commissioned it in 2008. The response from Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) summed up some of his Capital Hill colleagues’ collective yawn: “I see nothing substantive in this report that adds to the knowledge base necessary to make an informed decision about what steps — if any — should be taken to address climate change,” he told The New York Times.

Ouch. Three years and $6 million later, that’s surely not the reaction the National Academy of Sciences was going for.

A conservative Forbes magazine columnist on May 18 said the report was the product of a biased and liberal cabal hand-picked to perpetuate fears of a “climate crisis.”

“To claim that a report from such a small panel, comprised primarily of non-climate scientists and environmental activists, is objective and scientifically authoritative is a joke,” the columnist wrote.

One key argument made in that column was that the committee lacked scientific authority, that too few of its members are actual scientists.

But in the preface to America’s Climate Choices, Carnesale and Chameides made it clear that the Academy expanded membership on the committee specifically to include “people with expertise and experience in public policy, government, and the private sector.” In fact, the committee included climate scientists along with business people, politicians, and others. Carnesale is chancellor emeritus of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Chameides dean at the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University.

Congress in fact had directed the Academy to recommend actions to confront the challenges of climate change, not merely to provide another review of the science. But America’s Climate Choices does present a clear-eyed view of the latest climate change science. About half of the report’s 1,100 references cite the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report from 2007, and the rest refer to more recent studies published over the past four years.

Chapters four and five focus on policy recommendations, and this is where the report draws on the committee’s broad expertise, beyond the earth sciences.

A key message of the report: the most effective way to cut carbon emissions is to put a price on carbon emissions.

Many lawmakers, including Barton, surely reject the report’s recommendation to adopt “a comprehensive, nationally uniform, increasing price on CO2 emissions.” The vast majority of Republican lawmakers, and also many Democrats, are loath to move anywhere near a carbon tax after the collapse in 2010 of the House-passed cap-and-trade scheme.

A ‘Tsunami’ a Certainty … Only Exact Timing Uncertain

Even so, the authors of America’s Climate Choices emphasized that local, state, and regional efforts cannot do the job alone. National leadership is needed if the U.S is ever to cut emissions by any meaningful measure.

Beyond recommending that the federal government place a price on carbon emissions, the authors of America’s Climate Choices suggested that the federal government treat climate change as a risk management challenge. (See related posting.) Actions to protect the nation from the effects of climate change should begin now, they said. As knowledge about the globe’s changing climate matures and uncertainties are replaced by more confident forecasts, actions can be adjusted. But the nation shouldn’t wait.

“We don’t know exactly when the tsunami will hit or how high it will be, but we know it’s coming, and we should prepare,” Carnesale told The New York Times on May 12.

Few people may have been listening in official Washington when the report was announced. Politico writer Darren Samuelsohn wrote Robert Socolow pointed to an arguably bigger foil to federal government action than climate change denialists in Congress: the American public simply doesn’t like bad news, and climate change “essentially sounds like a bummer.”

“If you give people a message they don’t want to hear, they’ll push it away,” Socolow told Politico — adding that scientists nonetheless shouldn’t give up trying to get Americans to “come to grips” with the climate issue. The Princeton professor is co-director of The Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton, and he was the co-author of the widely-cited 2004 Science paper, “Stabilization wedges: Solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies.”

In a decidedly sober editorial on May 15, The Washington Post commended America’s Climate Choices and criticized “climate-change deniers” as “willfully ignorant, lost in wishful thinking, cynical, or some combination of the three.” Of Rep. Barton’s ho-hum response to its release, the Post editorialized:

“He’s right, of course — there is essentially nothing new, and that’s the point. Every candidate for political office in the next cycle, including for president, should be asked whether they disagree with the scientific consensus of America’s premier scientific advisory group, as reflected in this report; and if so, on what basis they disagree; and if not, what they propose to do about the rising seas, spreading deserts and intensifying storms that, absent a change in policy, loom on America’s horizon.”

America’s Climate Choices, whether or not it gains traction in Washington, is still a useful reference for reporters covering climate change. It does a solid job summarizing the latest science, and it offers a provocative vision for confronting the environmental challenges the nation faces.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimatemediaforum.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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One Response to Academy Addresses Congress’s Questions; But Question: How Many on Capitol Hill Listening?

  1. Michael Ioffe says:

    We must reevaluate science of climate change, free it from politic.
    Carbon dioxide is wrong enemy and playing not so significant role in climate change.
    Properties of water are more important in this case, they actually cooling the atmosphere.
    Mankind activities by tilling land for crop production and by deforestation, also for the same reason actually reduce evaporation of water on all continents.
    We also reduce reflection back to space of direct sun radiation.
    We increase convection forces between continents and oceans.
    All of these reasons are more than enough to explane climate change, but usually they ignored by climate models, because of their uncertanties.
    Only parametrization of these factors are not enough to make conclussion.
    Unfortunately all mass media, most of universities and government of all level do not take this my claim seriously.
    It is shame for science and mass media.
    I offer to Yale university: give me opportunity to write article about this and participate in debate