The Responsibility of the Scientist in an Age of Denial
Responding to a Governor that openly brags about not being briefed on climate science
“I know there are some folks at Rutgers who are looking at whether climate caused all this, but I certainly haven’t been briefed in the last year, year-and-a-half on this,” [Gov.] Christie told WNYC’s Bob Hennelly last month. ~~~ (listen to WNYC story)
[Important Update below]
Yesterday, I attended a conference at Rutgers, sponsored by the Climate Institute:
“Bridging the Climate Divide: Informing the Response to Hurricane Sandy and Implications for Future Vulnerability.’’
Tom Johnson at NJ Spotlight was there and wrote a good story that hit many of the most significant and relevant public policy issues. I won’t repeat the ground Tom covered, so suggest you read his story: RUTGERS CONFERENCE QUESTIONS WHAT NEW JERSEY LEARNED FROM SANDY
Another fine NJ environmental reporter, Kirk Moore of the Asbury Park Press, also attended and wrote a similar story, but Kirk picked up on a very significant point that has been ignored for the most part in the news coverage thus far, which has focused on the ocean side, and limited back bay coverage to the so called “good news” that FEMA relaxed the large majority of proposed “V” (wave hazard) zones on the back bays:
Back-bay areas will be New Jersey’s “Achilles’ heel,” said research professor Michael Kennish. “They have no really good way to protect against back-bay flooding.”
[See also, Sarah Watson's story at the Press of Atlantic City]
I’ve written about most of these issues for some time now, but one big policy point I would add to those stories was a statement made by prominent Rutgers economist Joseph Seneca during his opening remarks.
In stressing the need to develop a price for carbon, Seneca listed a number of federal air pollution and energy efficiency regulations (vehicle CAFE, power plants, buildings, and various equipment) which he then used to characterize the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions as “ubiquitous”(a radical view shared by the Chamber of Commerce).
I had read Seneca’s seminal textbook on environmental economics as an undergraduate in 1980, and have since spent a lot of mental energy on the issues of markets versus regulation as policy tools, so I understand that economists tend to criticize regulation in favor of market forces, but still, my jaw dropped and I almost fell off my chair.
So, during the Q&A session, I challenged him on that: “Surely you realize that we do not currently directly regulate greenhouse gas emissions at the federal or state level – so how could that be called “ubiquitous?”
[Clarification: EPA has made an 'endangerment finding" required by the Supreme Court'sMassachusetts decision, regulated the efficiency of passenger vehicles, and asserted jurisdiction to regulate GHG power plant emissions, but has yet to actually do so, a set of preliminary regulatory decisions the US Supreme Court just agreed to review in 2014.]
Seneca basically stood by his characterization and responded by saying that EPA recently proposed to regulate emissions.
Never mind that those proposed EPA rules are not in effect, but more importantly, they would not impact ANY existing power plant, would cost nothing, and would not reduce CO2 emissions by one pound.
I managed to speak with him for a few moments after the first break as he was leaving, and as we walked outside, I gave him the details of EPA’s recent proposed rule for emissions from new plants and EPA’s announced approach to rely on states for setting the technical requirements for existing plants.
We had a nice conversation. Seneca did not challenge my analysis and he made it clear to me that he was not familiar with the details of EPA’s regulatory initiatives and he thanked me for the info.
Later, during one of the breaks, a friend informed me that Jim Hansen would be speaking later at 4:30 at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School, so I enjoyed both Hansen’s talk and the Rutgers conference.
Therefore, I would like to make a few observations about both, particularly the strong contrast on the issue of the role of the scientist in public policy.
I went into the conference with an expectation that the scientists would emphasize what the academics like to call the “policy relevance” of their science.
The title of the conference itself emphasized “informing the response” to Sandy.
Similarly, Rutgers houses the NJ Climate Adapation Alliance – the mission of the group includes:
- Developing recommendations for state and local actions through collaboration with policymakers at the state, federal and local levels;
So, given this Rutgers mission and focus on “policy collaboration“, I was baffled by last week’s legislative testimony of Rutger’s most prominent climate scientists, Tony Broccoli (watch that testimony here) who opened his testimony with this:
I’ll begin by saying that I did not come to endorse or criticize specific policies. My objective is to provide information that can be used to inform policy decisions. Thus the approach that I’ll take when discussing this topic is to limit my remarks to the science of climate change.
How does that “bridge a divide” or advance “policy collaboration”?
Such a “pure science” stance might be appropriate in certain circumstances.
However, when there are pervasive attacks on the science, and the failure to heed the science will result in catastrophic global scale results which include the end of civilization, and when the policy makers are in denial and the Governor openly publicly brags about not being briefed on climate science which he dismisses as an “esoteric” issue that he has no time to consider in policy, THEN A SCIENTIST HAS A MORAL AND ETHICAL RESPONSIBILITY TO SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER.
At one of the breaks, I asked a panelist about this. She responded that climate scientists had received death threats.
I offered up Jim Hansen as a model of the responsible scientist. Again, this Rutgers professor strongly disagreed and essentially dismissed Hansen. She said that Hansen had become an advocate, had made “normative” claims, and had discredited his own work and undermined climate science. Wow.
After several panel presentations that largely dodged such “trans-science” (Weinberg) “normative” and policy issues, there was a brief Q&A session where I got to ask a question along these lines.
I specifically challenged Professor Broccoli regarding his testimony and asked the rest of the panel as well to weigh in on the issues of the responsibility of the scientist and the role of the University in public policy.
I was deeply disappointed at the response.
Basically, the response was that once a scientist had been labelled “an advocate,” then he was no longer respected in the scientific community and would not be invited to meetings or allowed to be a public spokesperson for the science. He would also be subject to right wing attacks.
A combination of the fear of being labelled “an advocate” by corporations and right wing climate deniers, along with certain research funding, professional reputation, and career ambitions, was driving their decisions on scientific ethics and responsibility.
I tried to push back, but clearly alienated the Rutgets crowd – but I was approached by several people who agreed with what I said, however harshly I said it.
I left the Rutgers event with an even deeper sense of pessimism.
Thankfully, after listening to Dr. Jim Hansen speak at Princeton, some of my hope was restored.
Hansen was introduced by Michael Oppenheimer (see his bio).
Oppenheimer discussed Hansen’s work in historical context, and traced the arc of his predictions, which have been validated by recent events, from the melting of sea ice to extreme weather and temperature.
Oppenheimer stressed Hansen’s ability to do cutting edge science and present it in a “policy relevant” way, never flinching from the implications of his research.
Hansen then spoke – his talk was titled (paraphrased): “From an itinerant farmer to being arrested at the White House: The views of a scientist on climate change.”
Hansen wove a moving tale of his early personal life and family experience as an itinerant farmer, how he came to pursue climate science as a PhD student at the University of Iowa, early work at NASA, his seminal climate research papers, and the pushback he got in media and political circles for that work.
He talked movingly about how the birth of his grandchildren affected his life and scientific work. There seemed to be no conflict with the “normative” and the scientific.
Hansen then went on to present key scientific findings about climate change impacts, especially the extinction of countless species, using monarch butterfly and migratory species as illustrations.
Hansen mentioned the Bush Administration’s notorious attack on his work, and how his thinking had evolved and come to civil disobedience and climate activism.
In closing, Hansen outlined his view on policy solutions, specifically what he described as a “conservative” market based approach known as “fee and dividend” to establish a price on carbon (see this for details on that).
Hansen also supported expansion of modular nuclear and criticized those who he said think we can solve energy problems via efficiency and renewables.
I disagree with most of Hansen’s policy recommendations, but enjoyed his talk and really appreciated his acceptance of responsibility as a scientist to explain and engage the implications of his work.
Maybe the folks up at Rutgers can learn of few things from Hansen – and the folks in Trenton too.
The only thing I was disappointed by was Hansen’s reluctance to talk more about the activist and civil disobedience tactics that he has worked with 350.org on.
[End note – I had a brief lunchtime exchange with a Rutgers engineering professor. He said he knew me and had read the blog. I asked what he knew about me. He replied that he knew that I had worked for government. What the hell does that mean?
I really didn’t know how to interpret that or respond, and asked him to elaborate. He repeated that he knew I worked for government.
I didn’t know how to respond other than to advise him that I began my academic training in an engineering school as a chemical engineering student and was familiar with and comfortable with science and math.
He then suggested that I should advise readers of my background – so here it is. I would also take time to add that I was a National Merit scholar and that Carnegie Mellon offered me as full scholarship back in 1975, which I declined.
I chose to abandon engineering and science in college after reading books like “Small is Beautiful”, “The Closing Circle”, “Limits to Growth”, “Design with Nature”, “The Politics of Cancer”, “Expendable Americans”, ”Soft Energy Paths”, and Lewis Mumford, all of which convinced me that policy and planning were more relevant and meaningful pursuits.
[Update – I want to make 4 very distinct exceptions to the timid and irresponsible approach of Dr. Broccoli.
Ken Miller was very blunt, and repeatedly called out the Gov. for false statements. Prof. Psuty was very clear and comfortable in talking about the implications of his science, and had the best quote in the AC press story:
“I’m afraid when I hear our local politicians talk about the dunes, they think the dunes solve everything and that is just not the case.”
I did not hear that during the conference, so it may have been in response to my calling out the failure to take on the politicians.
Last, as I previously wrote, Professor Jennifer Francis has been outspoken, with strong warnings like this:
As the Arctic warms at twice the global rate, we expect an increased probability of extreme weather events across the temperate latitudes of the northern hemisphere, where billions of people live,” said Jennifer Francis, Ph.D, of Rutgers.
Francis’ panel presentation explained 5 specific ways that climate change made Sandy a far worse storm than would otherwise have been:
1. sea level rise
2. warmer oceans
3. warmer air
4. more water vapor
5. arctic sea ice loss – impacted storm track, left turn into NJ (see above warning)- end update-
[Update #2 – apologies to readers trying to post comments – the screening software I installed is not working and makes comments impossible. Trying to fix, so I’ll post this comment from a reader:
Dear Mr. Wolfe,
A friend of mine on facebook shared your latest latest post about the Rutgers panel & Jim Hansen’s talk. I tried to leave the following comment but gave up on Captcha after several tries failed:
Bravo! posted at Global Warming Fact of the Day FB page:
Jim Hansen is my hero so I was especially glad to see your praise of his activism.
Scientific reticence is really out of place when we’re staring at an emergency. But I have a rather large quibble with him because he is stuck on the issue of CO2 and climate change – naturally, he’s a climate scientist – whereas to my mind it is but one of several converging catastrophes, such as overpopulation and habitat destruction and peak everything from fish to oil.
Not least, I am saddened that he won’t acknowledge that there is a serious problem of tree decline from pollution, which we have discussed in the past. I think it stems partially from a widespread refusal to recognize that forests are all in decline, and specifically because Hansen’s prescription for surviving climate change is to draw down the current level of CO2 to 350 (to begin with – possibly even lower) by planting trees. In his papers he states that this is essential because at 400 we are already well past a safe level. Obviously, admitting the trees are dying from pollution would render that plan problematic.
Since you live in New Jersey, as do I (Oldwick), you may have noticed this fall that the leaves aren’t turning bright colors – instead they are shriveling up and falling off prematurely. This has been the trend for several years as the background level of tropospheric ozone has become intolerable to vegetation, but this autumn it’s especially noticeable. I’m afraid that New Jersey is in the vanguard of a deeply troubling global trend.
Anyway, if you have any interest in this topic please check out my blog Wit’s End for a time-lapse of a maple tree and feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
Thanks for all your work and I look forward to following your posts now. PEER is a terrific organization.
http://www.wolfenotes.com/2013/10/jim-hansens-talk-at-princeton-provide-sharp-contrast-to-rutgers-climate-science/Gail ZawackiOldwick, NJ