"Scientists have to engage." So said House Science
Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) at the recent Climate Institute's
Washington Summit on Climate Stabilization. Boehlert, who will be retiring
at the end of this session of Congress, has long been known for his
straight talk on a variety of subjects. His speech offered an unusually
clear review of the political outlook in Washington and the states,
and the role that scientists should play. Selections of his address
follow; paragraphs have been combined in the interest of space.
NEED FOR POLITICAL CLIMATE CHANGE:
"I know that yesterday you heard from some of the world's leading
scientists about the frightening possibility that the earth's climate
may change more quickly and abruptly than expected, and whether there's
anything that can be done to avoid that. . . . Instead, I'm going to
talk about the frightening possibility that Washington's political climate
may not change more quickly and abruptly than expected, and whether
there's anything that can be done to avoid that.
"Certainly, without abrupt political climate change, it's going
to be next to impossible to do anything about global climate change.
Let me hasten to add that by calling for political climate change,'
I'm not covertly advocating a change in political party control. There
are segments of both parties that support action to address climate
change, and segments in both parties that don't.
"But right now, those of us who seek action are confronted by
ideology, by fear, by a reluctance to lead, by apathy, by comfort with
the status quo. All of that has to change, and I think it is beginning
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OUTLOOK:
". . . all of us who want to see some action on climate change
have our work cut out for us. In the House, many, perhaps even most
Members, still question whether climate change is a genuine phenomenon.
The scientific consensus has simply not pierced through the ideological
barriers. And there are briefings almost weekly sponsored by groups
that argue that climate change science is some kind of environmental
conspiracy, and they bring seemingly credentialed people forward to
make their claims. We've even had to confront the situation where Members
of Congress have tried to investigate scientists whose views made them
uncomfortable." (See http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/112.html
WHITE HOUSE OUTLOOK:
"I should say that the White House position has been far more
nuanced than that of most House Members. The President has stayed within
the bounds laid out in the 2001 National Academy of Sciences report
on climate change that he requested (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2001/077.html
.) The emphasis of the White House view changes a little depending on
who is speaking, but the White House has not been in the camp of those
who deny climate change, although it has shied away from mandatory action
to combat climate change - unfortunately, in my view. Now, we're seeing
rumors in the media that the White House may be planning a major climate
announcement in the next few weeks. I have no idea if that is true.
"I'm more concerned about how the Administration is implementing
its existing climate plans and programs. Our Science Committee's Energy
Subcommittee has a hearing later today, for example, on the Administration's
strategic plan for the Climate Change Technology Program, or CCTP."
(To be reviewed in future FYI.)
"But I am not a big fan of the strategic plan, which is more of
an inventory of existing programs and a wish list of possible future
ones, than a planning document with clear priorities. Moreover, as is
often the case with this Administration, the plan is silent on what
policies might be necessary to actually get new or improved technologies
into the marketplace." "But the good news is that the Administration
understands that we need new technologies to address climate change,
and that the government has a role in developing them."
" . . . the Senate, though it pains me to say it, has been the
leader on climate change policy, albeit with minimal results. Legislation
that is explicitly designed to address climate change has at least come
up for a vote in the Senate - something that is almost inconceivable
in the House. And bills like the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade proposal
have done respectably, although they have not been passed. One of the
most hopeful events in Washington related to climate change all year
was the all-day session that Senator Domenici and Senator Bingaman held
back in April to have serious discussions about how greenhouse gas emissions
might be regulated. At that session, not only the senators, but also
key business leaders, expressed openness to finding ways to control
"And an even more hopeful sign is what's been happening in the
states. California and the northeastern states are trying to take concrete
action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And many other states and
localities have expressed interest in reducing their emissions. Given
the way states compete for jobs and the fact that the impacts of greenhouse
gases are felt internationally, not locally, this state interest is
not what one would expect. But it's a sign that the public is beginning
to sense that this is a problem that must be addressed."
[On September 26, 104 Democratic and Republican representatives
sent a letter to EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson requesting that EPA
allow states to establish new automobile pollution standards to reduce
emissions contributing to global warming. A copy of this letter can
be viewed (copy and paste URL) at:
ROLE OF SCIENTISTS - NOW:
" . . .the key to creating abrupt political change will be to
further engage, educate and inspire the public. Politicians are responsive
to public opinion, even in this day and age of political manipulation
and multinational corporations. In fact, in this era of the Internet
and constant polling, politicians may be, if anything, too responsive
to momentary shifts in public opinion.
"So what's needed is for scientists and politicians and concerned
business leaders to redouble our efforts to reach out to the public
through as many different forums as possible. Complacent satisfaction
with our own right beliefs won't carry the day.
"The abolitionist Wendell Phillips famously said, One man
on the side of God is a majority.' But while that no doubt got Phillips
through some lonely times, the anti-slavery advocates didn't gain political
influence until they won more converts.
"So scientists have to engage. And what scientists say needs to
be clear and accurate and modulated and persuasive. Hyperbolic claims
will only diminish scientific credibility over time. Scientists have
to be clear about what we know, and about what we don't. They need to
be up front' about uncertainties - and about the potential costs
of waiting until all uncertainties are resolved. (I always quote former
Governor Tom Kean's line about acid rain. He said that if all we do
is continue to study acid rain, we'll have the best documented
environmental disaster in history.') We need to lay out an argument
for action, but we won't win by mimicking the opposition's tendencies
toward rhetorical excess."
ROLE OF SCIENTISTS - FUTURE:
"And we need to keep in mind that if we win - if the political
environment changes so that a desire for action takes root - then our
hardest tasks will be ahead of us. We may end up longing for the days
of debate over whether climate change is real - because the intellectual
and political decisions we will have to make to confront climate change
- whether through mitigation or adaptation or, more likely, both - are
going to make today's debates seem like child's play.
"I don't think there's anything about the European experience
post-Kyoto, for example, that should make us think that this is going
to be easy. So, like abrupt climate change, abrupt political change
will present us with a different and problematic world with new and
uncomfortable choices. But unlike abrupt climate change, a changed Washington
should give us reason for hope, despite all its attendant difficulties.
"Climate change discussions can be consumed by gloom. They can
remind me of the opening of Woody Allen's classic essay, My Address
to the Graduates.' It starts: Today, we are at a crossroad. One
road leads to hopelessness and despair; the other to total extinction.
Let us pray we choose wisely.' I think our choices are a little better
than that, and if they're not, we'll never win over the wider public.
"We have had successes in the recent past in winning over skeptics
and taking action. We have controlled the CFCs that created the ozone
hole. The Bush Administration has imposed strict new regulations to
control fine particles - the health effects of which were still the
subject of angry debate not so long ago. These problems were easier
to tackle than climate change, but they didn't seem very easy at the
time. The public and policy makers had to be convinced of the science
so that difficult concrete steps could be taken.
"So I look forward to working with all of you, to continuing to
learn with all of you, so that we can create a political climate in
which action is possible on climate change."
"That's going to take a lot of tough and honest discussion. But
it can be done. If we break through the current apathy and cynicism,
we can revive American politics, and our environment will be the beneficiary."