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Daniel P. Schrag
December 17, 2006
I am a climate scientist and an optimist. This may seem like a contradiction, with all the talk of scorching heat waves and bigger, deadlier hurricanes. But it’s not.
Let’s be clear: I am not a skeptic on climate change. In my earth science courses, I teach that burning fossil fuel is raising atmospheric carbon dioxide to levels not seen on Earth for more than 30 million years. In public lectures, I show pictures of what would happen to Florida and the Gulf Coast if half the Greenland Ice Sheet melted, asking people to imagine abandoning New Orleans and Miami. I tell people that, unless we take action to reduce emissions, the question is not whether this is going to occur, but when.
Yet I am an optimist because I believe we can fix the climate change problem. We can deploy the technologies to meet our energy needs while slashing carbon emissions: plug-in hybrids, windmills, carbon sequestration for coal plants, and even nuclear power. We have responded to larger challenges in the past, such as when FDR appropriated most of the nation’s industrial capacity to build ships, tanks, and airplanes for World War II.
Unfortunately, I am a little less optimistic today than I was a couple of weeks ago, before testifying at the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. It was Senator James Inhofe’s last hearing as chair of the committee, and the focus was on media coverage of global warming. I was invited by the Democratic staff to counter arguments that global warming is a hoax perpetrated on the American people by scientists like me.
Inhofe is a climate skeptic. But I still hoped I could help educate our lawmakers—maybe not Inhofe, but perhaps some of the others. In my opening statement, I explained that global warming is not a partisan issue. America should lead the world and capitalize on an extraordinary business opportunity as we invest in new energy technologies, I said.
Then I watched in horror as Inhofe’s witnesses spouted outrageous claims intended to deceive and distort. Two were scientists associated with industry-funded think tanks. They described global warming as a “mass delusion” among the scientific community, sowing confusion by misrepresenting the ice core data that connects carbon dioxide and temperature over glacial cycles, and claiming that “global warming stopped in 1998”—an anomalously warm year. They even recommended burning as much fossil fuel as possible to prevent another ice age.
Unfortunately, the format does not allow for direct debate. Some senators defended the integrity of the scientific community, including Barbara Boxer, who will become chair of the committee in January. But amid the collegiality and decorum that is the tradition in the Senate, no one stood up and called this hearing what it was: a gathering of liars and charlatans, sponsored by those industries who want to protect their profits.
Later that day, Inhofe issued a press release that specifically highlighted my testimony, claiming that I “agreed” with him that the Kyoto Protocol “would have almost no impact on the climate even if all the nations fully complied.” In fact, I had interrupted him during the hearing to object to this claim, reminding him that Kyoto was only conceived as a first step, and never as a long-term solution.
I later learned that Inhofe’s communications director, Marc Morano, was a key figure in publicizing the swift boat veterans’ attack on John Kerry in 2004. Morano, it seems, is still up to his old tricks, twisting the facts to support his boss’s outrageous claims. This made my visit complete: a glimpse at our government that sees the world only through glasses tinted by special interests, which treats science as a political football, no matter what is at stake.
I am still an optimist. We still have time to avert a climate catastrophe. But I am not counting on government, or at least this government, to lead us toward a solution. As our leaders accept the outrageous spectacle I saw the other day as just a normal day in Congress, we will have to take the first step without them.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company