Climate change: A political litmus test?

The recently released special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) points to limiting global warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (above preindustrial levels) as an essential but challenging goal for humans. The report warns of a very short time available to act to meet that goal, and predicts that failure will result in drastic changes in climate, with major impacts on the world’s population, economy, health and ecosystems.

There are uncertainties in almost every threshold and timeline predicted by this and all other IPCC reports: Uncertainty is integral to predictive science. What is not uncertain is that we are facing, in the increasingly near future, the prospect of a major disruption of climate and (ultimately) of life on Earth as we know it.

It is also clear that humans are largely responsible for the changes ahead, and that our collective carbon footprint should be drastically reduced. And it is equally clear that the energy and environmental policies of the Trump administration tend to increase, rather than reduce, America’s carbon footprint.

As an oceanographer, I have long advocated the need to make science understandable to society in general and policy makers in particular. I am by no means alone. Most scientists are trying to do just that, and getting progressively better at it. Climate change is an area where science has been successfully translated to policy makers. The Paris Climate Agreement is a distinctive, powerful example of that success. And the IPCC reports have been a powerful tool in that translation.

But president Trump intends to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement. This is a measure of how little his administration relies on science to inform policy. As is his reaction to the new IPCC report: “It was given to me. And I want to look at who drew it. […] Because I can give you reports that are fabulous and I can give you reports that aren’t so good. But I will be looking at it. Absolutely.”

I know of no scientifically credible report that predicts a favorable (much less ‘fabulous’) outcome for climate, if serious mitigation strategies are not undertaken with urgency. And I know of no more credible source for climate change predictions than the IPCC reports—exactly because these reports are prepared through consensus across many scientists, after reviewing, reconciling and synthesizing the findings of thousands of rigorously peer reviewed publications.

The new nominee to direct the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, understands that “the observations show the planet is warming, [and] the evidence of the models suggest that it’s human induced or there’s a strong human signal.” He also understands the need and importance to reduce uncertainty in climate predictions and how the Earth’s resilience will respond to abuse. His Senate confirmation process should offer insight into whether and how he plans to translate such understanding into serious policy recommendations for effective mitigation of (and adaptation to) climate change.

Senators should probe Droegemeier comprehensively on this issue. In fact, they should make his commitment to seriously addressing climate change a litmus test for his confirmation: As much as I like and respect Droegmeier as a colleague, this is no time for timid leadership in climate change.

By the same token, voters may want to reflect on the basic truth that we all need a livable planet. Whether we are red, blue or purple, we all hurt from increasing weather extremes, such as devastating hurricanes, flooding or droughts: As Michael and Florence just recently reminded us, our houses, businesses, health, and lives are too high a price to pay for complacency. We all hurt from reduced biodiversity. We all hurt from increasing poverty and food scarcity. We all hurt from increasing numbers of climate refugees.

It is then quite reasonable to apply the same litmus test that I am recommending for Droegemeier to all relevant elected officers, at local, state and national levels. Do you understand and acknowledge the impending risks of climate change? Do you favor pro-active mitigation and adaptation strategies, as one of America’s main priorities? Do you have or support a realistic energy and climate plan? If you are an incumbent, what is your track record on climate change issues?

Answering ‘no’ to any of these questions (or a weak track record, for incumbents) is, in light of the most recent IPCC report, disqualifying from my perspective as a voter. I say this with trepidation: Single-issue litmus tests are too often very divisive. But viability for the future of the human race is truly too important to ignore when electing our representatives in government.

Congressman Greg Walden (R-OR2) is a close-to-home example of an incumbent who is disqualified by this criterion. He has a 9% lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters, reflective of a consistently negative voting record on environmental issues, including climate change issues. His priorities, as listed in his campaign web site, do not include climate change—and in fact would arguably accelerate climate change. He is not alone in Congress.

It truly is time for a change. Voting against Walden, and other like-minded elected officers or candidates (regardless of party affiliation), is smart politics for November. And the only way we can give our grandkids, and their kids, a fighting chance for a sustainable future.

— Antonio Baptista


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