President Obama laid out a clear science-based agenda for the next four years in his answers to the questions posed by Science Debate 2012, a consortium of science groups including the Union of Concerned Scientists. The issues he pledged to work on -- science funding, climate change, organic farming, Food and Drug Administration safety, water quality and scientific integrity -- received little attention in the presidential campaign, with the possible exception of climate change during this past week, in the wake of superstorm Sandy and New York mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement of President Obama. It will take leadership from the president and his team to rally public support and build bipartisan coalitions for action on any of them.
Addressing climate change
With growing public awareness and concern about our changing climate in the wake of this year’s extreme weather events — even before Sandy — President Obama has a real opportunity to move the national conversation toward a serious effort to both better prepare for the mounting impacts of climate change and to sharply reduce the carbon pollution that is driving it. This will require effective and sustained use of the bully pulpit, convening leaders from the science, business, security, faith, and other communities to build support for action, and using all the authorities available to him at the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies to move ahead in the face of congressional gridlock, particularly on emissions from power plants.
Cutting oil use in half
Cutting our oil use in half by 2030 is both scientifically and technically possible. Neither the science behind the plan nor the benefits of the solutions – for consumers, security and public health – are partisan. Both Democrats and Republicans should be champions for this approach. In his first term, President Obama set higher fuel economy standards for new cars, light trucks and heavy-duty vehicles represented the single biggest step taken to reduce global warming pollution and oil consumption in the United States. We should build on this success by taking additional steps to cut our oil use.
Investing in sustainable agriculture
One immediate piece of unfinished business is reauthorization of the Farm Bill. Sharp divisions among House Republicans prevented Congress from acting on the farm bill before the elections, putting countless programs at risk. Resolving this impasse should be a priority in the lame duck session of Congress. Of course, reauthorizing the Farm Bill is just the first step; we need action from President Obama and Congress on other fronts as well, including support for sustainable agriculture, investing in local food systems, and preventing overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture, all issues that are vitally important to the health of all Americans and the economic well-being of our rural economy.
Bolstering scientific integrity
On the issue of scientific integrity, President Obama made good progress on his Inauguration Day promise to “restore science to its rightful place.” Now he can build on his March, 2009 executive order on scientific integrity in federal agencies. There is much more work to be done, on a range of issues from protections for scientist whistleblowers, to ensuring the independence of scientific advisory committees, to increasing transparency and scientific independence in federal decision-making.
We need to go beyond these individual solutions to restoring respect for evidence-based approaches to solving our problems, too. Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer put it well recently when he said that we “have a serious problem when facts don’t matter because every idea or position is judged not by the evidence for or against it but by how it lines up with ideological pre-commitments.”
More broadly, we need a return to comity and solutions-based thinking in our policies. Danielle Brian of the Project on Government Oversight wrote an excellent post last week on “5 Steps to Curing Election Dysfunction.” (My personal favorite is step four — “stop calling each other jerks.”)
This is something we can all do in our own advocacy on issues important to us, and should demand from our elected leaders, from President Obama on down.
Meyer is director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.