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Critical Mass Blog: Following the Science

The last weeks have involved many firsts when it comes to addressing climate change at the White House. The President signed new executive orders to implement important new climate change policies, and Special Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry and National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy both spoke at length at a White House Press conference.

Earlier week, in the context of the current pandemic, President Biden emphasized to Anthony Fauci, his administration’s desire to “make everything we do be based on science and evidence”. It will be equally important to ensure that the same principles guide the administration’s climate change policy.

There were some good signs. Establishing for the first time a National Intelligence Estimate to explore the security implications of climate change, will help provide a much-needed empirical information on which to base policy. Directing all agencies to develop strategies for integrating climate change into their work, and it will also ensure a whole government approach with inter-agency information transfer so necessary to the development of sound policies. In addition, Climate Envoy Kerry in his remarks made it clear that climate change is a global problem and the United States must work effectively with other countries to resolve it.

Underlying these initiatives, the President signed another executive order to restoring trust in government through scientific integrity and evidence-based policies, through the re-establishment of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). It is vitally important is to have open lines of communication between scientists and other scientists, and between scientists and government officials.

Nevertheless, in the midst of all of these positive developments there are some worrying trends.

As the President indicated, it is now widely accepted, certainly within the Democratic Party, but also by a majority of the general public, that climate change due to human-generated CO2 emissions is a global problem that needs to be dealt with. Nevertheless, there remains a significant minority of people who still question the need for new policies, and many Republican members of the House and Senate have already expressed skepticism about new regulations on the environment, and about the severity of climate change problems.

To effectively bring along Congress and the Public, it is vitally important that this administration not fall into the trap of merely relying on the rhetorical claim that human induced climate change is an existential problem, nor should they overestimate the nature of the problem. Doing so risks alienating many of the people necessary to help enact policies to deal with climate change, many of whom are already skeptical about wild world-ending claims. To be politically and technologically effective, public policy needs to be tied to the actual predictions of the underlying science.

Unfortunately, up to this point politicians were making statements that are all over the map, and are also all incorrect. One of the authors of the Green New Deal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has said on one occasion that if we continue with business as usual for 12 years, “the world is going to end”. Vice-President Harris, when she was a senator questioning Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, stated that climate change threatens the air we breathe. And at the opposite extreme is Senator Jim Inhofe who famously brought a snowball into the Senate to argue climate change was an illusion.

In today’s appearance the President attributed the tragic forest fires in California and droughts in various parts of this country to climate change. It is a mistake to attribute single events, from hurricanes to forest fires, as evidence of climate change, just as it is a mistake to imply that a snowy day in DC implies the absence of climate change. Instead, the prediction coming from a warming planet is that climate events are statistically likely to be more severe. Climate change may not imply more fires in California, but hotter temperatures do suggest that forest fires do occur are likely to be more devastating. Similarly certain parts of this country are likely to see a reduction in rain, while other parts may actually benefit from changing conditions.

Similarly, while it was heartening to see the President reaffirming that there will not be an outright ban on fracking, it is important that he not follow some members of his party who would like to end the process completely. While reducing dependence on fossil fuels is necessary, reverting from a dependence on coal to natural gas is an important interim stage, as the latter not only generates fewer greenhouse gases, but also is less damaging to the environment in other ways.

Neither politicians, nor members of the general public can be expected to be scientific experts, but as the President emphasized today, they need to rely on them. A detailed working knowledge of all scientific complexities is not required to put the problem in appropriate perspective, just as a detailed knowledge of all the complexities of history or economics is not required in order for politicians to assess under what conditions running large budget deficits may be beneficial or dangerous.

It will be important for the scientists who advise government to help both the public, and the government they are advising understand the general scientific issues that motivate the policies the government will be advocating. To assist in this effort, President will need to use his significant soapbox to help further educate the public.

Fortunately, while conventional wisdom suggests that climate science is sufficiently complex so that supercomputer calculations are required to make potentially questionable predictions, this is not the case if one is merely trying to understand both the overall quantitative predictions of climate change, and which predictions are firm and which are more speculative. Here, basic high school level science provides a remarkably robust understanding.

It is for this reason that the foundation I lead is planning to send a copy of The Physics of Climate Change to every member of the new House and Senate, as well as to members of the executive branch. The purpose is not to lobby for specific actions, but to provide the scientific context in which actions can be meaningfully debated. We are currently in the midst of a gofundme campaign to help raise money to do this. (I am foregoing my royalties on these copies).

The current administration is facing greater global challenges than almost any of its predecessors. It is not clear exactly what responses to these challenges are politically or economically viable. But if success is possible, it will only if President Biden and Congress are willing to follow the science, and explain to the public what science they are following in all of their policies.

Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist, is President of The Origins Project Foundation, and former Chair of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His newest book, The Physics of Climate Change, has just appeared.

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