US Scientific Societies Urge Congress to Act on Climate Change

Dr. Rush Holt of the AAAS explains how the inaction on emissions reduction and support of climate adaptation is due to prevailing ideologies and lack of the dispersal of information, not to a lack of research

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DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore.

Last week 31 American scientific organizations such as the American Public Health Organization and the American Meteorological Society presented a letter to the U.S. Congress. The letter asserted that research shows climate change to be a real threat, and that greenhouse gas emissions are the primary driver. Signatories urged congressmembers to take action on climate change by working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and supporting global efforts to adapt to “address unavoidable consequences, human health safety, food security, water availability, and national security, among others.”

Joining us to speak about the letter is Dr. Rush Holt. He’s the Chief Executive Officer of American Association for the Advancement of Science, the organization which spearheaded this leader. He previously served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years. He’s also a seasoned physicist. Thanks for joining us.

RUSH HOLT: Good to be with you Dharna.

NOOR: So Rush, could you speak a bit about the letter, and perhaps also about the timing? What did you hope to accomplish with this letter to Congress, and why did you choose to send it now?

HOLT: Well, there’s nothing special about the timing except that the scientists all over the world, including scientists represented by the 31 organizations, have continued since 2009 to collect data, to reanalyze the data that was available to us then, and to form an even stronger consensus that climate is changing, that human activity is largely responsible for that, that the effects are costly and deadly, and that there probably are some things we could do about it now if we act promptly.

So over these 6 or 8 years now it is the compiling of more data, the further analysis of the data, and the realization that not enough action has occurred that led these organizations, plus some new organizations, joining the 13 organizations, who joined the 18 in 2009, in sending this letter. The letter is similar to the letter of 2009. But with greater consensus, greater consciousness, and greater urgency.

NOOR: Can you speak a little bit about the reception of the letter in Congress, and generally the political attitude amongst U.S. Congress members toward action on climate change. Both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also supporting adaptation methods.

HOLT: Well I can’t say much about what is going to be the result of this letter. Congress has been debating appropriations, and gun safety, and a number of other things, not devoting much attention to climate change since we sent it. I do know that over the years, a lot of people have either wished it away or criticized the scientists for various, usually unspecified reasons and done nothing.

This is serious. We know the Earth has warmed on average. But even more important than the average changes, we are seeing a lot of specific changes. From hour to hour, day to day, month to month. So it’s not just, well, let’s get used to a few degrees warmer weather. We’re seeing that ecosystems are being upset. That fisheries are becoming unproductive. That agriculture is having trouble keeping up that tidal surges in storms are unmanageable. So there are certainly things that are happening from the inaction and it looks like these instabilities, these nonlinearities, or in other words the fluctuations, which is another word for storms and tidal surges and so forth, are going to become much worse than we’ve seen.

It is possible, and that’s as far as I think most of the scientists involved will go, to say that it’s possible that by curtailing emissions of greenhouse gases now, by starting immediately and for the next years we could reduce probably not eliminate, but reduce these damaging dangerous deadly events.

NOOR: And you mentioned there that despite this consensus among scientists, and even when confronted with the possibility of actually being able to in some ways prevent the damage done by climate change, often these scientists are sort of singled out and not treated with every much seriousness. This is in some ways demonstrated by this past Wednesday, there was a house in the Energy Commerce Committee hearing, and Republican-Ohio Congressman Bill Johnson called the EPA “un-American”. He sort of seems to be borrowing the language here from the McCarthy trials of the 1950’s. Fittingly, many have called the attitude towards environmentalist and environmental scientists by Congress a sort of witch hunt. Is there any truth to this? Is there a witch hunt happening?

HOLT: Well, I would say the authors of this letter, these 31 scientific societies that represent millions of people, scientists, and those associated with them, directly or indirectly, are very careful to say that this is based on the evidence, based on the analysis of the evidence. It is not to be used for partisan political purposes. It is not presented in that sense. You know one of the things that we at the American Association for the Advancement of Science would like to communicate to people at large is that scientists, science is by nature non-authoritarian. It’s not dogmatic. We are not trying to tell the world this is the way it is and you’d better listen to us.

We’re saying we have been looking at the evidence. Actually, for 100 years. It goes back 100 years that people began to say, yes, carbon dioxide could be a blanket over the Earth and provide warming. 50 years ago scientists began to issue, really, warnings that there could be real changes because of human emissions of climate change. But it’s not because they suddenly found the truth. It’s because they continued to look at the evidence. At first they said gee, this is interesting, and then they said wow, this is really happening.

Now it’s getting to the point where scientists are saying, uh oh, there isn’t a political ideology, or for that matter even a scientific ideology, that’s being advanced here. It is our best understanding of the evidence based on many independent paths of analysis of that data and continuous new data that lead us to say that. So you know, it’s hard for these societies to tell Congress how to balance their competing political interests. But it is for us to tell them our best understanding of what the evidence says about what is happening, why it’s happening, and where it is likely to go. And it’s pretty clear to everybody who looks at this with an independent scientific mind that it’s likely to go in a bad way.

NOOR: And in response to all you’ve just said about the presentation of this evidence, I’d just like to sort of get your thoughts on something that we read earlier. So in the Scientific Americans article on this letter, Jon Foley of the California Academy of Sciences seemed to say that–he said that he thought the letter wouldn’t be effective because, and this is a quote, “We’re being bad scientists. Not in how we look at our climate data, but in how we look at our communication data.” So essentially saying that presenting the same information again isn’t the answer. So is poor communication on the part of the scientific community really a problem?

HOLT: It must be, because scientists have been coming to this conclusion with more and more confidence over the last decade or two. And yes, there have been in many places in the world strong positive response to this with government leaders saying let’s get to work, and starting to do something. But not so much in the United States. So I think that surely means that there has been some failure of communication here. In other words, communication isn’t motivating enough. I suppose some people out there are saying, well those are good studies, isn’t that interesting. We need more people to say oh those are good studies. This is evidence that’s been well handled, well considered, let’s get to work.

So yes you’re right, that’s a communications challenge.

NOOR: And the organizations that signed collectively represent millions of scientists across the U.S., and it’s clear from the letter that among scientists there’s a clear consensus that climate change is not only real but also driven by human activity. But what do you think the consensus is among the general U.S. population? So is there–I guess put another way, is it actually un-American to demand environmental, and specifically climate, action? Is this something that most Americans would support?

HOLT: Well, surveys show that a majority of Americans, I’m sorry, that it’s not a unanimity of Americans but a majority of Americans think that climate change is real, that it is costly and even deadly and that we should be doing something about it. I think that maybe they are less confident that we can do something about it.

But it’s many, many millions of Americans who get it. And some in their own ways are trying to cut back on emissions of greenhouse gases and so forth. The President has been very strong on this. Carried a strong statement and strong delegation position to Paris in past months. In Paris most of the countries, all the major countries of the world, made pledges to do something about this. Now, the pledges are not strongly enforceable, and even all together, those pledges probably wouldn’t be enough, scientists think, to stop the damaging effects of climate change. Nevertheless it’s a big deal that all of these nations made a commitment acknowledging that we’ve got a real problem and that they were going to do something about it.

So that’s good. But there certainly are many Americans who don’t understand the urgency of it or are imagining that they see dissention in the scientific community when in fact there really is quite good consensus. Or people who, for their own personal reasons or special interests, don’t want to make changes which would be necessary to deal with a problem of this urgency.

NOOR: Okay, and we’d like to continue to speak a bit more about what kind of changes would be required and which ones are being made, where there’s progress being made and where there still is work to be done. So we hope that you’ll join us again in a second part of this interview. Thanks for joining us.

HOLT: I’d be happy to, thanks.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

Part 2

DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: We’re back on the Real News Network. We’re here speaking about a letter given to Congress last week signed by 31 major scientific organizations in the U.S. These organizations represent millions of scientists. This letter was given to urge Congress to address climate change, to support climate action, not only in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also in supporting adaptation methods globally.

Joining us here again to speak about this letter is Dr. Rush Holt. He’s the chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the organization that spearheaded this letter, and he previously served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years. He’s also a seasoned physicist. Thanks for coming back.

RUSH HOLT: Thanks, Dharna. I appreciate you covering this.

NOOR: So going back into sort of the inaction and the action taken by the U.S. government on climate change, last week the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a $500 million spending package for the Green Climate Fund for international climate change adaptation. President Obama has promised $3 billion to the program by 2020. Does this mean that we should have hope? Are things improving amongst the House and Senate?

HOLT: It’s a step. The president has asked for a lot because he understands, I think, the seriousness and the urgency of the situation. Congress has responded modestly. There are still many members of Congress who approach this from an ideological point of view. In fact, climate change has become more of an ideological debate than many other things in front of us. Actually, on so many issues nowadays, people fall back on their precooked opinions–in other words, their ideologies–and refuse to look at the evidence. That’s particularly true in climate change, and with this letter we’re hoping to draw people’s attention to the evidence.

You know, the science is, by nature, not meant to be ideological. It is supposed to be open to the evidence, and the evidence should lead a scientist or anyone looking at evidence to change their mind if necessary, depending on what the evidence says. And the evidence, as collected by thousands and thousands of different scientists working, following different paths of study, has pointed to these conclusions: that climate change is real, largely human-induced, deadly, costly, and that there are some things we should try to do about it.

And so, you know, it’s too bad that people have dug in their heels. And the, yes, what you point to is maybe cause for some hope. But until some of the key people in Congress stop digging in their heels and thinking that this is an ideological debate, we’re going to have problems.

You know, with the ozone hole, the ozone depletion in the stratosphere, that is, or with the acid rain–that’s sulfur absorbed in moisture in the air that came down as sulfuric acid and so forth, in the lakes–those things were largely taken care of. Not completely. But because people realized that, well, because people approached it not as precooked ideological debates. Instead they said, let’s see how we can fix these. And they did, by banning the chlorofluorocarbons, by putting various additions or changes in our power plants to remove the sulfur dioxide and other acid-causing chemicals.

So yes, we could do this. And actually, we could improve our quality of life by having better energy systems. It needn’t be bad for people. It could be good.

NOOR: But despite all this evidence, a couple of weeks ago Congress turned down climate change adaptation funding for the Pentagon, which is the second-largest clean energy buyer in the United States. Climate change has been said by some to be a bigger threat to national security than ISIS. So what does that sort of say about Congress’ vision and plan for the future?

HOLT: It says we have a long way to go. And there–you know, we can change the way we admit greenhouse gases. It will take some effort. Change is often hard. But I would argue that everybody would benefit, not just by preventing or mitigating some of these damaging effects of climate change, but in many other ways, by using our energy efficiently, by improving–by reducing emissions of all kinds, not just carbon dioxide. By having more convenient transportation systems and energy generation systems, we could have improvements in our quality of life and reduce, probably, some of these serious problems coming from climate change.

So Congress had better get with it. Much of the rest of the world is getting with it. We are not the leaders, now. We are the, to some extent, the international impediment in dealing with this. So that’s the point of our letter.

I appreciate your covering this story, and I thank you very much.

NOOR: Thanks for joining us, Dr. Holt.

HOLT: Thank you.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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