Remarks at Stanford on the Obama administration and the role of scientists as citizens


Stanford U photoIn one of several recent speaking engagements at Stanford University on “Essential Voices for Accountability“, as part of the Government Accountability Project’s American Whistleblower Tour, I talked about political interference with climate change communication during the Bush administration, the global warming denial machine, whistleblowing, and other matters. On April 24 I spoke with a group of environmental science graduate students at the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources, on the Obama administration’s climate and energy policies and the role of scientists as citizens in climate change communication and advocacy.

Some excerpts, from April 24 at E-IPER:

On the Obama administration

Clearly it makes some difference who wins the election, even though though the fundamental energy power structure stays in place. There have been pluses and minuses with Obama. You don’t have the egregious censorship. You do have some semblance of a climate policy. You have a move with EPA on regulating greenhouse gases – although we are well into the sixth year of the administration now and there are still no final rules in place for emissions from either current or future power plants.

The main problem with Obama during his first term was that, starting early in 2009, they decided to fall silent on talking about climate change. They used a clean energy and green jobs framing, which was tactically understandable, particularly given the crisis of the economy. But for about three years, people associated with the White House hardly talked about climate change as such, weren’t seen with the climate scientists, didn’t defend the scientists when the global warming denial machine stepped up its attacks in advance of the Copenhagen conference in 2009 – for example, with their bogus, trumped-up ‘climategate’ supposed scandal that some of my emails with various scientists were swept up into. I mean, the White House just stood by, essentially.

Also, they evidenced a tendency, not to suppress science, but to sort of disregard it on certain occasions when it might be politically inconvenient. If you look at federal communications in the immediate wake of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil blowout disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, you can see that. There’s the usual concern with message control – for example, trying to get federal officials to speak really plainly about the environmental implications of hydrofracking, seems to be a problem. It’s not as bad.

I think, at this point, now that Obama has given a major address on climate and has a climate action plan and an executive order on preparedness and is moving on the regulatory front, the real problem is that, while the administration is doing these things, and allowing people to think, OK, we’ll have natural gas as a bridge to a renewable energy future, they’re doing essentially nothing to stand in the way of a very stepped-up effort on the side of fossil fuel production.

The oil industry still has a stranglehold on the global transportation system, wihch they have no intention of giving up. You can start to phase coal out of the electrical generating system because there are alternatives you can turn to. But the administration’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy includes deepwater drilling in the Gulf, possibly offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean, offshore drilling in the Arctic, increased drilling on public lands, mountaintop removal coal mining, large-scale strip-mining for coal on federal lands in the West, possible stepped up coal exports, the administration’s 100 percent gung ho support for natural gas fracking, the push for exporting natural gas and possibly crude oil, the unresolved issue of the Keystone tar ands pipeline.

So, the power of the the corporate interests, and the politicians in Congress they’re associated with, is something the Obama administration has not been willing, or has not been able, to fundamentally stand up to.

On the role of scientists in climate change communication

It seems to me that, clearly, there’s much room for improvement in how scientists communicate with ‘civilians’ – it’s not the same as communicating with colleagues. I do think that some members of the climate science community have made a pretty heroic effort during the past few decades to do that communication — through the well-vetted international and national climate assessments, through congressional testimony, public speaking, media interviews, and other educational modes.

But I think the impediments on the corporate and political side are essentially beyond what good science communication per se can deal with. As essential as that is – now and into the indefinite future, for the next generation, and to try to elevate the discourse and create a more scientifically literate public. And to advance the state of scientific understanding, which is clearly the intellectual bedrock of the whole issue. If the climate scientists said, “actually, there’s no problem,” then the whole issue would go away politically. But that doesn’t seem to be happening.

Public communication is not for everyone to do. Some people should just stay at the computer, stay in the lab, or in the field, and not talk to the media. They don’t want to, they’re not good at it. It’s not something everybody has to do. But I think, more and more, people feel called on, or called upon from within themselves, to speak in some way, to try to engage in some way with the larger arena.

I think that should be encouraged. It’s really your role as a citizen that you have to figure out. There’s no one size fits all with that, there’s a great division of labor in how that’s done, different people have different approaches to it. But personally, I would encourage more opportunity, when you have it, to say, “fellow citizens, I want to talk with you about a problem I see, and on which I have some expertise – and drawing on my expertise, this is what I think you need to know.”

And that “this is what I think” might include something that goes pretty far over toward policy prescriptiveness. If that’s what you think, you should not silence yourself, you should not silence your citizen voice because, oh, it might compromise my scientific credibility. I realize there are issues in academia, particularly for people who don’t have tenure and so forth. But I think there’s room for a great deal more speaking out by scientists, and that it does carry weight, it does have credibility, and that people do need to hear it.

But I think when you do that, you have to respect the complexity of the processes of government and politics and policymaking and societal management. I think some scientists have disdain for the low intellectual level of much of our politics, and legitimate disdain for some of the politicians. So they don’t trouble themselves to become sophisticated in their political thought, and will speak in very amateurish ways about government and politics, in ways that would never occur to them to do in their scientific work.

So, I think it’s incumbent on you – and I realize you have day jobs that take up all your time and that scientists are not going to be full-time activists – to be as sophisticated as you can be about it. And realize that credibility as a scientist does not automatically translate into credibility in politics or policy. That has to be earned in its own right. But you bring a certain prima facie credibility because of your expertise if you can do that right. It’s a complicated thing to navigate, it requires a lot of thought and practice and is something you develop over time. I think it’s something you need to think about and figure out how you want to do it.

Earlier posts:

American Whistleblower Tour visits Stanford University

Stanford joins divestment campaign; Obama should be next

Big Green confronts Obama on climate-energy policy link

Stephen Schneider and the millennial generation

“When we stumble onto those moments of wonder when we have pushed back the frontier of human knowledge, Steve is smiling.  Whenever we find Steve’s courage to stand up to the forces of unreason, Steve is cheering.  And whenever we open our office doors and our lives to students, guide them, mentor them, and teach them, Steve will be smiling.”  A few notes from the Steve Schneider Memorial Celebration, held on the campus of Stanford University on December 12, 2010.

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2 Responses to Remarks at Stanford on the Obama administration and the role of scientists as citizens

  1. Greg Markowski says:

    Re: “actually, there’s no problem” . This is close to the truth. A scientist could say ‘Actually, in the overall [i.e., qualitative] picture, there is no science problem.’ ‘The real problem is that people and the government are ignoring the risk. They seem to be waiting for a crisis of truly biblical proportions to occur before doing much. But by then it will be too late: no matter what is done then, problems are likely to get much worse before getting better, due to the long delay caused by the heated up oceans and greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere.

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      Point taken.
      Apologies for the slow comment moderation this evening.

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