Dangerously Dishonest

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

In his confirmation hearings and again last week on CNBC, EPA chief Scott Pruitt expressed doubt about the human role in climate change, indicating that more “review and analysis” is needed to better understand that role. That opinion contradicts not only an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists, but also the view of 195 governments that unanimously affirmed the findings of those scientists as expressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Those same 195 countries also backed their words with action, by signing on to the Paris climate agreement and making strong commitments to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

So our EPA chief is either dangerously misinformed or dangerously dishonest when he seeks to cast doubt on the well-established human role in climate change. But more than that, Pruitt’s statements are at odds with his administration’s proposed budget, which drastically cuts funding for global change research. If those in the administration genuinely believe that we need more “review and analysis,” they should be increasing, not decreasing, funding for research that would provide the answers they say we need. So what’s really going on here?

It’s difficult to avoid concluding that the administration simply doesn’t want to hear the truth about the causes of climate change. Acknowledging the predominant human role in causing the problem would make it difficult to justify inaction. Continuing the phony “debate” about settled science postpones the conversation we should be having, about the best policies to protect present and future generations from the serious risks of climate change.

Ironically, some other folks argue against the need for more research, precisely because the human role in climate change is well established. If we know there’s a problem, why do we need more science research? Shouldn’t we just get on with implementing solutions? Of course, but recognizing a problem is not the same as knowing how to solve it. Critical policy-relevant questions remain unanswered:

  1. How much climate change can we live with? Climate policy goals like limiting global warming to 2º C are educated guesses about when the impacts of climate change will become intolerable. We need a better understanding of critical thresholds and tipping points, in order to design climate policies to avoid them. WHRC’s work on thawing permafrost, for example, aims to understand at what point the release of greenhouse gases from this source becomes unmanageable.
  2. How can we control climate change while simultaneously improving ecosystem health and human prosperity? WHRC’s work in the developing world seeks win-win solutions that work both for the environment and local economy. Success will involve good policies informed by exactly the sort of research that the US administration is trying not to fund.
  3. How can we prepare for the effects of climate change that we won’t be able to avoid? Adaptation measures can be very cost effective, but only if they are based on good information about what local manifestations of climate change will look like. This requires research into regional-scale climate change and its intersection with natural and human systems. A recently funded WHRC project will enhance resilience and improve management responses in the Southwestern Amazon.

Controlling climate change at an acceptable level—meaning without disastrous outcomes—will require science-based solutions. That can’t happen without policy-relevant research. Historically, the US government has spent far more on global change research than any other nation. If it is going to do less, the rest of us will need to do more. There’s nothing more important or more urgent.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.