The collision of climate science and politics, part 1 – lecture at American University, November 2011


“It was evident to me from the first global warming hearing I went to, in 1988, that this was going to be a huge problem for our society to deal with….” First of a two-part transcript from a talk at American University in Washington, DC.

On November 9 I spoke with Dr. Erich Vogt’s undergraduate class on International Environmental Politics at the American University’s School of International Service. The general subject of this one-shot guest appearance was the current state of climate policy and politics. The transcript, slightly edited but mostly left in its conversational form, is from a portion of the 75-minute session.

Related post:  The collision of climate science and policy, part 2

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It was evident to me from the first global warming hearing I went to, in 1988, that this was going to be a huge problem for our society to deal with. Because on the one hand, the problem came to the attention of the public and the political elite because of the work of scientists who were calling attention to their findings and the serious implications of what they were finding about how we’re changing the chemical content of the atmosphere (and the ocean, it’s understood now too).  This is very technical work.  If you’re not a climate scientist, it’s hard to understand on a technical level – although scientists have made huge efforts, more than scientists in most fields ever do, to communicate their findings to those of us who are non-specialists over decades now – including an endless series of major international and national climate change assessments.

They’ve identified a problem of greenhouse warming. They’ve said that everything we understand about physics and chemistry and biology and about the trajectory of our energy use in our economy suggests that there will be a much greater rate of climate change in the future.  There’s already an observable climate change.  There are already observable and measurable impacts of climate change.  Those are likely to be much greater in future, and a lot of them are likely to be very harmful and potentially disastrous.

And they know where it’s coming from. They know that it’s basically driven by human activity, the way we use energy. Coal, which is running most of our electric power system, and oil, which pretty much has a stranglehold on the transportation system.  And natural gas, the fossil fuels.  It’s a global problem, it involves every country; it implicates our entire way of life.  Everything we do that uses energy is contributing. We’ve built up an entire way of life that scientists tell us now is not sustainable because it will harm the habitability of the planet and really turn around and bite us over time.  And it’s not something that we can take forever to deal with.

My view of the connection between the world of climate science and the world of policymaking is that people who are not experts should pay attention to what the experts are telling them.  I mean, if you have a heart condition, you pay attention to what your cardiologist tells you.  If you fly in an airplane, you pay attention to the experts who say this airplane is safe to fly; you get on it and you fly.  Climate science is another area of expertise that needs to be attended to very carefully. It doesn’t tell you exactly what to do about it, but you can’t just say, “Oh I don’t believe any of that.”  We see a lot of that in society now.  That’s not okay, that really makes dealing intelligently and competently with the problem extremely difficult.

Global warming has waxed and waned over the years in terms of the intensity of public attention that’s been focused on it. But 2007, 2008, 2009 it reached an unusual level of intensity of public interest and concern.  A major scientific assessment made very strong statements about the problem.  Then President Obama took office in 2009 and there were very large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.  There was a big climate treaty summit conference coming up in Copenhagen at the end of 2009.

There was a strong sense, a widely shared sense I think, that the system was finally poised to take some type of meaningful action.  That there would be major legislation that would put in place a system for reducing greenhouse gas emissions over time, with a regulatory cap on emissions and using the market for allocating the emissions efficiently.  And that there would be more funding for research, and there would be support for vulnerable populations in developing countries that have the fewest resources to defend themselves and are going to bear a lot of the brunt of the impacts from the way we’re changing the global environment.  That there would be a major new agreement in Copenhagen to supercede the Kyoto Protocol; that there would be commitments by the major powers to jointly take action.  That there would be regulation of greenhouse gases by the EPA, as a result of a very important Supreme Court decision in 2007 – the court ruled that the EPA has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, and is required to do that if it makes certain kinds of findings about whether greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health and welfare.

So there are all these different arenas, national and international, and even at the state and local level, an increasing number of states either individually or through forming regional agreements were beginning to take steps to reduce emissions. Some very proactive places were starting to put in place strategies for adapting; preparing to deal with the impacts of climate change. Places like Seattle and New York City.

But as it turned out, it was way difficult to make any real progress on any of those fronts.  It didn’t just happen. And I think that one could point at basically two things, very broadly, that have made it very difficult to put in place a policy framework that will deal effectively with the climate change problem.

One is just the inertia in the system.  The inertia, the momentum. The United States, let alone the global economy, is a huge ocean liner to try to steer in a different direction.  And at the level of national government, we have a built in procedural conservatism. It’s not easy to enact major policy changes, there are lots of ways that change can be blocked.  Congress today is the most spectacular example; it’s just tied in knots over every issue.  We’ll come back to that.

It’s very difficult to get an agreement that encompasses both the wealthy, developed countries and the developing countries.  The developing countries like China and India, their per person income is way below ours, and their per person energy use is way below ours, especially if you look at the entire history, the cumulative effect. Nevertheless, that’s where most of the growth in emissions is going to come from in the future, so there has to be a global agreement. It may not have the same requirements on every country. That has been very difficult to negotiate, and it’s certainly hard to get the developing countries on board with making commitments, if it doesn’t appear that the United States is willing to really do anything, to bend our own trajectory, make any commitments. So that’s at an impasse and I don’t think anybody expects major new agreements to be reached at the climate treaty Conference of the Parties summit conference in Durban, South Africa, that starts in a few weeks. It will be whatever individual countries are already voluntarily willing to do. That’s oversimplifying it a bit, but it doesn’t look like there’s any binding new agreement on the immediate horizon.

Action in Congress is completely blocked.  There was a major climate bill that probably would have been enacted last year except for the fact that the Republicans have set it up so that they will routinely filibuster anything that the Democrats propose and it was impossible to get 60 votes in the Senate, which is what it takes now (a supermajority) to get anything done.  And there’s tremendous pressure on the EPA to weaken or hold off on regulations.  There are court challenges, there’s pressure on the Obama Administration from industry interests and conservative interests.

In addition to the built-in complexity and difficulty of moving the system, it’s also clear that the prospect of major action on climate policy provoked a really powerful counterattack at the highest level from corporate interests – first and foremost, the energy industry that controls the energy system we have now. It’s enormously profitable, it’s controlled by a relatively small number of companies, and they don’t want to be regulated, and they don’t want to see a policy that’s going to move people off of their product. Not until they’re ready to. The day may come when they have decided they can make more money from solar energy than they can from oil, and they’ll acquire titles of ownership to the solar energy technologies and we’ll go off in that direction and buy it from them.  But that does not appear to be anywhere near happening, and the government does not stand up to concentrated corporate power very well – either party. And so government backed down on passing legislation that industry didn’t want them signing, and treaty agreements the industry didn’t support.

In addition, the dominant economic interests have funded for a long time an attack on climate science, a denial of global warming that I came to call the global warming ‘denial machine’. It wasn’t just a skeptic here and a skeptic there. It was an orchestrated campaign to confuse public opinion, to attack the credibility of climate science, to attack the personal integrity of the leading climate scientists.  That has really been quite a stunning phenomenon to observe. And I’ve observed it a lot and written about it a lot.

It moved right into the White House to a certain extent under the Bush Administration, and it’s pretty much taken over the Republican Party in a way, saying that you don’t believe in global warming. This is not a faith-based thing. It’s about, do you believe in scientific evidence?  It’s not like you can just make stuff up. But saying that you don’t believe in global warming is almost like a litmus test for Republican candidates now with their right-wing base. You have to be against abortion rights, you have to want to deal harshly with illegal immigrants, and you have to not believe in the science of global warming, and there’s various other things. And of course under no circumstances are anybody’s taxes to be raised.

This denial machine is even beyond what we saw with the tobacco companies and the cancer problem. Actually some of the methods are the same, it’s to sort of blow smoke, as it were, to manufacture a sense of great scientific uncertainty in order to ward off regulation of their product.  The tobacco companies did that for a long long time, and they knew what they were doing. I mean their own scientists could tell them about the health effects of cigarette smoking but they just lied about it. Too much money was at stake. Some of the same people who were involved in that campaign got involved in the global warming denial campaign as well, but even there they didn’t attack the personal integrity of the cancer researchers, they just questioned their findings. Now they’re even attacking the personal integrity of climate scientists. Like Governor Perry of Texas, who’s a candidate for the Presidential nomination: “All these people they’re just making stuff up to get more research funding.” This kind of slanderous stuff.

I know a lot of the leading climate scientists now, having worked in this area over the years. And if you want to stack up their integrity with the integrity of politicians, this is no contest.  Quality control and accountability for what they say is built into their system. Your reputation with your peers for credibility is all-important. Whereas a politician can be like a lawyer with a weak case who is just trying to bamboozle some kind of jury. They’ll make stuff up to win a point, there’s not the same kind of accountability and they can get away with saying things that are completely inaccurate, and nobody every holds them accountable. So the norms of the two cultures are very different.

It’s very difficult to bring them together, but it’s very hard to see how a problem like climate change that’s driven by the advance of scientific understanding can be dealt with unless there is a fruitful, constructive relationship between the people who are doing the research and the people who have responsibility for managing society. Whether it’s the government policymakers or private sector or any other institution. There has to be a constructive interplay between those worlds, because science keeps moving forward and so does policy.  But we don’t really have that now, we haven’t really worked that out in this country, and it creates a real problem.

And that’s where we are today. If we were to continue over the long term on the trajectory we’re on now, then – unless the leading scientists have everything wrong that they’ve been saying, which I doubt – we’re facing a huge problem of sustainability of the system that we have now. …

[end of part 1]

Related post:  The collision of climate science and policy, part 2

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