Tuesday, December 15, 2009


Jane Lubchenco gave a talk this morning in the U.S. Center about the interactions between atmospheric climate change and oceans. She is currently the director of NOAA but is essentially an academic researcher (Oregon State University) who has been successful at translating her research interests to public policy. So much so that she is now a key player in setting environmental policy related to the oceans and the atmosphere.

The story behind the scientific results she was presenting, while scary, is nothing new. The data she used to illustrate her points have appeared in print in peer-reviewed scientific journals for years. The pattern that has repeated itself over and over again throughout the course of these meetings is that the science behind these changes is known. We know what is happening. We have some of the most complex scientific monitoring instruments ever known watching environmental systems constantly. As Lubchenco put it, "some people have talked about climate change as a theory but it's not, it is a set of empirical observations."

Science underpins and informs how we model what will happen in the future based on current trends and patterns. It is a practice that can identify the consequences of what we do or what we fail to do. In this, the voices heard throughout the scientific literature and the discussions here in Copenhagen are clear. Global average temperatures are rising and we have done nothing substantial yet to stop them. We are simply watching them rise.

So if the world's experts are saying the same things, which frankly sound pretty frightening to me, why is it that Tiger Woods having an affair and losing a sponsor gets 5.5 minutes on the nightly news in the U.S. and international talks on a future international framework for mitigating and adapting to climate change gets about 60 seconds? There seems to be a fundamental disconnect between what an overwhelming landslide of evidence is telling us and our ability to care about it at a personal or governmental level.

To a certain extent, it does appear as though some in the current US administration understand what is at stake here. They have trotted out an impressive number of high level officials to give briefings here on the current state of the science in regards to climate change and to give the impression that the US is committed to work towards a solution. The heads of EPA, Interior, Agriculture, NOAA, Commerce, and Energy have all travelled to Copenhagen to speak in a room no larger than an ordinary classroom. So why doesn't the U.S. government do anything to lead an international agreement on addressing these problems?

The simple truth may just be - they can't. There is no public support for the painful solutions that would be required for us to change the ways in which we interact with the environment around us. What support does exist is fickle. Many people don't even acknowledge there is a problem in the first place and view it more as a political opinion than a scientific reality. We like to think that we are good stewards of the land, we have a self-image that is green, but Americans consume more resources, cause more environmental damage per person than any other single group of people in the world.

Every major piece of legislation designed to protect the environment that Congress has ever passed occurred during a flurry of activity that ended in 1974. The Nixon administration. The creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the passage of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Pesticide Control Act, Endangered Species Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act all passed with bipartisan majorities by 1974. Since that time, most have been weakened by additional legislation not strengthened.

We know that science has pointed out all sorts of threats to our health and safety in the years since 1974 so what explains this lack of action? Is this reflective of public disinterest, public ignorance, a misunderstanding of long-term risk, unwillingness to constrain economic interests for the public good, deep-seated distrust in governmental motivation, efficiency or effectiveness, deep-seated distrust in science? I think a case can be made for each one of these, or all of these factors playing some role in the unwillingness of Americans to do anything about curbing our self-destructive tendencies.

The so-called "Climategate" scandal provides a ready-made political solution for those who value political leverage over scientific reality. In the end, it reinforces the idea that science and scientists can not be trusted instead of seeing it for what it was - an example of poor judgment and bad practice. Government, academia, corporations, religious institutions, and scientific organizations are all human institutions populated by fallible people. Oversight would never be necessary if this were not so.

In 2007, a CBS News/New York Times Poll asked people to rate how serious a problem global warming poses. Over 52% claimed it should be one of the highest priorities for government leaders to solve. The same Poll was repeated two weeks ago. The number of respondents claiming it was one of the highest priorities dropped to 37%. Nearly as many, 23% said it is not a serious problem and we should worry about it later. When exactly would be a good time?

Mark and I ran into a group of people from Sweden this weekend that had traveled to Copenhagen from Stockholm to promote an idea they have for how to make the world a little better place - podcars. Small, personalized electric pods that would run on a rail system and automatically take you anywhere you wanted to go like a personalized version of public transit. While I am not proud of my initial reaction to their idea, meeting them made me think. They weren't interested in promoting this idea because they owned a podcar factory. As far as I could tell, they had no personal stake in the matter other than passion and interest.

Most Americans, me included, are so cynical that everything is perceived to be driven by personal interest, political motivation, or desire for power. Because of this we tend to distrust everyone and everything we hear unless it supports what we already think to be the case. What I finally saw was that these Swedes had an image of how they wanted to make the world a little bit better and they were working hard to see that something was done about it. It was a positive vision. They trusted that the future could be better than it is now. What do you want the world to look like when your kids and grandkids grow up? Can you see a positive picture of the future? What are you willing to do to make it happen?


  1. Hey, I thought up podcars years ago when I was driving once again to St. Louis to catch a plane and saw the trains rolling within sight of I-70. I think they are a great idea! Go, Mike, bring home the great ideas!

  2. Mike, I haven't seen this blog yet. Well done, and very well stated above! It has to be disheartening for you, but I hope you don't lose all hope yet -- we need you and others like you who know the facts and can articulate them well to stay active! I wasn't kidding about you needing a media tour when you get back.

    If this is truly taken on in this country the way we need it to be taken on, we will need leaders who are willing to allow their performance and the performance of the agencies they run to be publicly measured -- that's the only way to rebuild trust there.

    Before we get there even, we need leaders who are willing to trust the intelligence of those they serve enough to make cases directly to them on such matters, to take the time to do the education necessary to build the support that will be needed to make changes of this magnitude. That's where your effort here is so important, so keep it up! As you articulate above, support is unfortunately dwindling here. If the case is not made more strongly by our leaders and anyone else willing to make it, the support will dwindle further, and the noise of those who oppose these needed efforts, despite their lack of factual basis, will build if there is not an equal response to counter it.

    If nothing else, does it help to know the Bears beat the Rams?



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