Thursday, March 04, 2010

On a Swift Boat to a Warmer World

Daniel P. Schrag

Boston Globe
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

22 comments:

Andrew said...

It was kind of refreshing to read about someone being so optimistic about our abilities to mitigate global warming... at least in the first few paragraphs. I've always wondered how some scientists claim global warming is a "mass delusion." I guess by misrepresenting data to look however they want it, they enable themselves to do so. Almost even more ridiculous is that certain lawmakers just go along with these claims, at least at this point in time.

The metaphor at the end, that Schrag's visit was simply "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" really drives his points home-- yes global climate change is real, and yes we can do something about it, but perhaps for the "first step" we cannot count on the government.

mancinia11 said...

While this article mainly criticizes the government for protecting private interest and staying away from the real issues, it should be noted that the optimism the author has for solving the climate change issue is real. Most people when talking about climate change do not highlight the fact that if we take the right steps, we can mitigate the negative effects associated with climate change. While this optimism is nice to see, it is unfortunately few and far between, as evidenced by the author's experience with congress. Steps must be taken to stop climate change if we want this kind of optimism to persist.

Tara said...

I think that the optimism presented in this article should urge people to do more to mitigate global warming. Since Schrag and other climate scientists insist that if we act now, we could prevent a catastrophic situation, Congress should take scientists' research more seriously and not let their own personal bias interfere with policy. It is unfortunate that Senator Inhofe does not listen to Schrag and even twists his word to further his own personal agenda. Hopefully, Barbara Boxer's taking over Inhofe's position will change things in the government and allow scientists, such as Schrag to have more of a voice in terms of energy policy.

Aparajita said...

It is good to his optimism on the matter however, we need to think of pragmatic ways to deal with climate change. Politics as we have seen, always gets in the way. We need to work our way around politics and apply the best economics we can to accomplish our goals. Optimism is great but pragmatism is critical to accomplishing one's mission. Like I said in the previous article, while a direct tax might be best economic way to deal with the problem of emissions, we need to go with Cap and Trade, because it seems to have more public and political acceptance.
Nonetheless, his optimism, as said in the previous post is refreshing.

James said...

I think the letter highlights the bitter partisanship we see in Washington today. Will anything ever get done? He makes a good point about Washington not being able to get it right and I don't think they ever will. Like he said, individuals are going to have to do their part to protect our planet. Informing the public about the consequences of the lifestyle they choose and the decisions they make will be crucial for an effective solution for climate change.

Tess Hayden said...

I am really glad that Schrag brought up the point that we have responded to bigger challenges in the past. I am not sure I agree with that, however, because I feel like the consequences of our current situation will be much larger than anything we have ever seen before. Even so, this is still an ongoing event that is able to be fixed. I am also kind of shocked that people still believe that global warming is a hoax. It's hard to argue against scientific fact, and I do believe that some areas of climate change have been blown out of proportion, but there is evidence the climate is going through a drastic change. The fact that some scientists even recommended burning as much fossil fuel as possible is simply mind blowing. That may prevent another ice age, but we would see the opposite end of the spectrum then which would not be any better for the human population. Even though many politicians are not on board with fixing this issue, it is gaining tremendous support and I do think many of the right steps are already taking place.

Allie Long said...

I agree that Shrag's optimism is refreshing, but I think that especially from his experience with congress, it is going to be very hard to conquer global warming without the government's help. While individuals can make an impact by themselves and start without the government, I really don't see large enough strides being made to accomplish as much as we need. Only when government and everyone else actually believes and understands the truths about global warming is it going to be possible to really control it. It is disturbing that legislators still don't believe it and are working to make others think it is false as well. I wonder what needs to be done to get people to believe the realities of it.

Hillary said...

It was nice to hear an optimistic outlook on climate change- but I am still jaded and a pessimist. If he doesn’t think that it is the current government that will have the power to make change, then who is he talking about? I don’t think that any noticeable change will come about (with regard to climate change) without the full backing of the government (especially the US government, or any other powerful particularly government).

Pearson P. Nibley said...

Like many others, I feel it is a good sign to see some optimism about climate change in the scientific community. On a sad note though, it is distressing to hear stories about government officials focusing on special interests rather than scientific facts pertaining to global warming. As we have discussed in class, exploring new green technologies is the first step in curbing emissions and slowing climate change. I like the idea from the article where it appears that Schrag is challenging the readers and American public to take the first steps to combat climate change. At some point, however, we will need the government's policies, laws, and wallet in order to make a significant difference with regard to this issue.

Frank said...

This article seems to be founded in one of the most central issues in which companies and individuals do not recognize the social costs of their actions. Large corporations and producers are not realizing their actual costs of production while the general population and future generations are being penalized. Right now, these producers have no incentives to raise their costs, resulting in lower profits.
It is nice to hear someone who is optimistic about a solution being passed through congress. Personally, I think their are far too many egos each with their own full proof solution to the problem. The group of people who agree that action needs to be taken are not only fighting against those who don't, but also those who do and have different solutions. There needs to be a compromise between the suggested policies and systems and action needs to be taken quickly. I don't know how optimistic I am about this type of compromise occurring in the near future.

Stevenson said...

I think that Schrag’s response demonstrates what we mentioned in class that scientists, initially intending to simply research and understand problems, have been forced to become activists of global climate change as the issue grows increasingly political in nature. Not only does this come out in Schrag’s language in the paper, but in some of the tactics used against him as well, including misrepresentation and slander. I feel that a large problem of Washington politics today is that the true nature of the issue is often forgotten and dismissed behind special interest groups and heavily partisan arguments in which nothing results. I found the last paragraph of Schrag’s article to support this assertion. Americans have always counted on government to solve problems in their best interest, but now I feel there are issues such as global warming that have generated public anger that show a lack of faith in governmental decision. Schrag’s words seem to invoke a “call to arms” to the American people regarding climate change action as something we all must take into our own hands rather than leave up to a incompetent, inefficient government.

Blair said...

I am glad someone is still optimistic and willing to fight, because climate change is an issue that will not go away just because we stop talking about it in the news. What will it take to convince the skeptics that something is changing on our planet? Countless natural disasters? Or will we be able to change our culture and our habits before it is too late. I was in a waiting room the other day and the news was on and it was a segment on global warming and how it is a hoax and a publicity stunt. One of the "facts" used to debunk global warming was that in some areas the average temperature has actually been cooler. If the reporters paid attention to the science, they would realize that global warming has more consequences than simply warming the planet, and one of them is changing the ocean and wind currents which can lead to some places falling into another ice age. It is unfortunate that the words "global warming" has become such a controversial topic, because I think the controversy takes away from the actual science.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Andrew, Tara and other students in that it is nice to read the testimony of an optimistic climate scientist. It is easy to lose hope for effective climate policy in the US since it currently does not exist; i often wonder at what point it is going to be too late to reverse climate change without causing significant temperature, precipitation, and seal level changes.
Schrag is correct in saying that climate change is real and occurring right now, and it is hard for me to understand how "climate skeptics" can deny its existence. The greenhouse effect and carbon cycling are truth, and I don't see how one can deny that those processes play a significant role in natural and anthropogenic climate change.

Stephanie Beebe said...

I agree with Andrew, Tara and other students in that it is nice to read the testimony of an optimistic climate scientist. It is easy to lose hope for effective climate policy in the US since it currently does not exist; i often wonder at what point it is going to be too late to reverse climate change without causing significant temperature, precipitation, and seal level changes.
Schrag is correct in saying that climate change is real and occurring right now, and it is hard for me to understand how "climate skeptics" can deny its existence. The greenhouse effect and carbon cycling are truth, and I don't see how one can deny that those processes play a significant role in natural and anthropogenic climate change.

Caroline said...

It is shocking to hear that just 3 and a half years ago people were not just arguing not only that global warming doesn't exist, but that in fact the opposite is happening, and that more fossil fuels should be burned. While there are definitely still skeptics about the existence of global warming, today the debate seems to be mostly about the extent of the effects of global warming. I think there are also a lot more optimists today that things could be and are being done in the field of alternative energy production. With the unemployment rate so high big pushes are starting to be made, or at least plans are in formation, to break into the alternative energy field to create jobs.

boehlinga10 said...

It blows my mind that politicians like Senator Inhofe can be so blind to the fact that global warming truly is a serious issue affecting our world as a whole, rather than some "hoax perpetrated on the American people by scientists." It is frustrating to read pieces such as this one by someone who is well-educated on the matter and who shows optimism, but who lacks the appropriate political support to address the issue. We definitely need more cooperation between politicians and our environmental specialists if we are going to be able to implement policies that aim to subdue global warming. It seems to me like politicians are more concerned with holding their seats in Congress than they are with the environmental health of our nation.

Beth said...

I was upset to hear about the politics behind environmental policy discussed by Schrag. I feel that I sometimes forget the corporate voice in the Senate and am also optimistic about climate change because it seems, for the most part, to be a bipartisan issue. Although there are aspects that Democrats and Republicans disagree on, the issue becomes significantly more complicated when Senators stop advocating for their public constituents and muddle the debate with corporate interests that they have probably been paid to endorse. If only the environment could make campaign donations...

Ellie said...

Just like many of my other classmates, I was glad finally hear any hint of optimism in regards to our current climate change. Not only does Daniel P. Schrag briefly describe some of the actions we can take to fix our climate change issue, but also he notably points out that we have responded to larger challenges in the past.

On the other hand, I was shocked to read about some of the opinions of political figures, particularly those of Senator James Inhofes. He believes that global warming is not only a “hoax” but also a “mass delusion.” The fact that anyone would recommend significantly increasing the burning of fossil fuels, is unfathomable.

Some of his absurd statements led me to look up one of his speeches about “The Science of Climate Change.”
http://inhofe.senate.gov/pressreleases/climate.htm
There were many disturbing remarks but one of the most agitating was, “It's also important to question whether global warming is even a problem for human existence. Thus far no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophes predicted by alarmists. In fact, it appears that just the opposite is true: that increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.” I am still sitting here wondering how anyone could question whether or not global warming is a problem for human existence…

Jim casey said...

Wish me luck tomorrow!!

Elsa said...

I think this article highlights an important factor about attempts made at addressing global climate change. While there are many who are optimistic about the possibility of real change occuring, it is going to take a lot of outside pressure on the government. As long as the government has the option to bring in scientists who are willing to distort facts to fit the government's business as usual agenda, nothing will get done. I think the real change will begin when outside factions begin putting real pressure on the government to act. Otherwise, we could see ourselves in a real stalemate for quite some time. if change to current policy is going to happen, it's going to take serious efforts from persistent groups outside of the government. A positive hope for the future of global climate change policy.

Jeremy said...

Its frustrating how reluctant some politicians are about helping to reduce carbon emissions. Even on some off chance that climate change is not a big issue, the effects of reducing carbon emissions would still be great for air quality which would lead to less health care expenses and kids can play outside longer hopefully helping with obesity.

Victor Silva said...

Is really weird read such statements coming from a public man as senator Inhof. Say that the world is not living under a context of climate change or, worst, that we have to release more and more carbon in atmosphere to avoid a new ice age is the most blind stuff that I have heard for many year. Actually, I agree widely with Daniel Schrag about his optimism in our conditions of reduce and deal with Global Warming. After all, it is not the first time that the mankind have to deal with a big problem but the political steep is imperative to lead our success or our failure. Our leader must help but, for now, they are still preferring play of blindness. The Copenhagen flop is an excellent example.