18 September 2015
Once upon a time, in a city named after America’s first president, science enjoyed broad bipartisan support, including the biomedical, geophysical, environmental, and social sciences. The scare of Sputnik not only inspired American space exploration in the 1950s and 1960s, but also reinforced a commitment to basic research in many disciplines, which paved the way for development of technological applications far beyond the imagination of the original researchers. Current cell phone technology, for example, traces back to miniaturization of electronics needed to enable the Apollo mission. Today, those cell phones provide a convenience for baby sitters to inform parents that, “Houston, we have a problem.” They are also having profound economic impacts that benefit humanity in myriad ways, such as helping rural subsistence farmers in developing countries obtain agricultural extension advice and find the best prices for their produce.
Despite a wealth of examples of how investment in Earth and space science has benefited society, a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the modern forum on climate change science. Numerous published surveys have shown that the climate change topic has become deeply politicized, with “belief” in climate change science diverging widely between political party affiliations. I put “belief” in parentheses to emphasize that understanding scientific evidence has become mixed up with ideological world views. Dealing with a global crisis such as climate change may require a communitarian view of theories of change. Those who don’t share that view may prefer to believe that there is something wrong with the science, or perhaps with the scientists.
How can we return to a balanced bipartisan recognition of science’s benefits to society? How can we re-establish broad support for the Earth sciences, including understanding the factors affecting climate change and effective strategies for mitigation and adaptation?
I recently had the privilege to learn from the senior aides of two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Carlos Cubelo (R-Florida) and Chris Gibson (R-New York). These two Congressmen have recruited other members of Congress from their own party to sign onto a resolution that climate change is happening and that human activity is contributing to it. Aided by AGU’s public affairs staff, the intent of my visit was to offer our help to provide the supporting scientific evidence in objective and understandable forms to their colleagues as they recruit more bipartisan support for their resolution.
Their strategy is to emphasize local impacts. Not surprisingly, their own districts are highly vulnerable to the impact of sea level rise (south Florida) and intense flooding events (upstate New York). For the moment, they are not including mention of specific mitigation strategies in their appeal. Similarly, AGU does not endorse any particular mitigation strategy, but rather emphasizes the scientific basis for the growing economic and environmental impacts of human alteration of the global carbon and nitrogen cycles. The focus of a growing group of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle is to find common ground that: (1) there is a problem; and (2) human influence cannot be ignored. A debate on approaches to mitigating the problem eventually will follow and will likely include ideological differences of opinion on what government should do, but agreement on the diagnosis that there is a serious human-induced problem is the first step toward establishing a bipartisan consensus that a cure is needed.
Is this the beginning of a new type of discussion on climate change, based on apolitical support of and confidence in science? I am not so naïve as to think that there won’t be fits and starts along the way, but I am convinced that scientific evidence regarding causes and impacts of climate change will eventually prevail. The efforts of these two Congressmen and their staffs may be the beginning of a much needed bipartisan forum where Earth science will, once again, be highly valued on both sides of the Congressional aisle for its contribution to human well-being.