Energy & Environment

Understanding earth science in the 21st century

In his address to the National Academy of Science in 1963, President John F. Kennedy said that science is the “source of understanding man’s own nature.” Almost 50 years later, that remains the lens through which we view the benefits of science and scientific research.

In recent weeks, as discussions on balanced budgets and reduced deficits abound, some of the results are a staggering blow to scientific research and 21st Century competitiveness. In the context of earth science, the approach is flawed. On the one hand, deficit discussions ignore largely the cost-effective, multi-faceted, and often life saving benefits the study of earth science has brought to our country and the world over the last 50 years. Second, except among the uninformed, the debate over the human causes of climate change is one without scientific merit.

There is little debate among the world’s leading climate scientists about conclusions drawn from extensive, peer-reviewed scientific research. Nonetheless, we face significant cuts in research because some challenge the science and have raced to the outer edges to differ over the conclusions.

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Inclusion of conservation act in AGO report deserves support

The far-reaching America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) Report, released on February 16th, synthesizes input from a national conversation that got Americans talking about the places they love and how they want to work together to protect them. 

Our public lands, the heritage of all Americans, face many challenges - climate change, air and water pollution, urban sprawl, and loss of open space. Policymakers on both sides of the aisle can take direction from the nation’s collective wisdom as they look to reshape U.S. conservation policy. 

Through meetings and online forums, the initiative delivered timely feedback from communities, as we look to strengthen American conservation values that will make our country stronger, healthier, and more prosperous. 

Two of the conservation tools supported in the report have stood the test of time as effective and bipartisan – the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and the Antiquities Act.

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Getting the Gulf back to work

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar went to Houston to examine the new well containment system capable of plugging deep sea well blowouts in the Gulf. After announcing the Obama Administration still has no plans to lift the ongoing ten month drilling moratorium, Secretary Salazar then visited the small businesses in the region continuing to struggle because of this misguided, ineffective, and unnecessary policy. 

Just kidding; of course Secretary Salazar made no such visits. That would have been a little too close to the bone.

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Congress' intent is to handcuff the EPA

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will host its fifth and final listening session on putting limits on toxic pollution from the nation's biggest polluters. These safeguards will protect Americans from reckless corporations that have previously been able to use the air we breathe as their dumpster without limits. These meetings with stakeholders serve as an important forum where Americans voiced their concerns about air pollution and the need for protections against the health risks pollution poses to their families and communities.

But now we turn to Congress where some politicians continue to grandstand against common sense health protections – with some going as far as declaring their intent to handcuff the EPA from doing its job of protecting Americans.

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Critical energy issues for discussion with Secretary Salazar

Today, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar will appear before a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee, which comes directly on the heels of his testimony yesterday before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Both hearings provide a good opportunity for the Secretary and committee members to discuss some critical issues about energy policy that are getting more and more attention as the situation in the Middle East remains uncertain and gasoline prices remain volatile.   

Here are a few of the critical issues that I hope are discussed today, and I’m sure I’m not alone:

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We need a comprehensive energy plan

Unrest in the Middle East is causing gas prices to skyrocket, with oil prices surpassing $100 per barrel.  This price spike threatens any economic recovery in our own country and underscores our nation’s need for a common sense, comprehensive energy plan that moves us to sustained energy independence.

Our country is too dependent on foreign oil.  In the short-term, we must take steps to ensure our nation is not held hostage to the prices set by the Middle East.  That means we need to look for new sources of oil wherever we can find it, including Alaska, the Outer Continental Shelf and from shale in the west.  With the need to create more jobs in our country, development in the former moratoria areas of the Outer Continental Shelf and other restricted areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Rockies would directly create 160,000 new jobs by 2030, according to ICF International.

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We need to drill here, we need to drill now

While Congressional leaders in Washington are diligently working to keep our government open, thousands across Northern Africa and the Middle East are fighting to close their governments down. 

Dictators are being thrown from their palaces by the masses. What started in Tunisia has spread to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and now we can add Libya to the list. I certainly hope the demand for democracy spreads to the streets of Iran. February 2011 may be remembered in history as a time of rebirth, but I am concerned that the unrest we are witnessing could imperil our own national security. 

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The limits of doubt-mongering

Since Congress re-convened, it seems especially fashionable among the new leadership to voice doubt about the scientific evidence that heat-trapping gases are dangerously warming the planet. And at least one congressman says he will hold hearings into climate science, giving a platform both to mainstream scientists who have spent their professional lives studying the issue, and the relative minority of Ph.D.s in a variety of disciplines who claim climate change is nothing to worry about.

That seems reasonable enough at first blush. But rhetoric heard on the campaign trail in the fall and on Capitol Hill since then suggests that the aim might not be to have a serious conversation about the risks we face from unabated warming, or the opportunities for the U.S. to develop the technology necessary to solve the problem.

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Rethinking America's energy security

Last month, amid fears the Suez Canal might be closed by the political turmoil in Egypt, the price of oil briefly topped $100 per barrel. As a result of ongoing clashes in Bahrain and Libya, oil prices are again approaching the century mark.  

The revolutions in North Africa, along with other evidence of political instability across the Middle East, should remind us that America’s lack of a coherent domestic energy policy is putting our economy and our national security at risk.

Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, perhaps best summarized these risks when he recently stated, “The current political unrest in Egypt and its unstable neighbors strongly reinforces America’s need to reduce our dependence on turbulent regions of the word and produce more energy at home.” 

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Take a page from the military: Risk management could reboot climate change debate

Once a serious issue becomes politicized and turns into a virtual weapon in the culture wars, it can seem impossible to move beyond partisan bickering and identify a reasonable and responsible course of action. But as those whose job is protecting national security have shown us time and again, it is important to chart a path forward --despite political battles-- when a situation is dangerous and the future is in doubt.

Defending the nation routinely requires making weighty decisions despite uncertainty, incomplete information, and limited resources. To do its job in these difficult situations, the military routinely uses an approach known as risk management. Risk management provides a systematic way to consider threats and vulnerabilities, “knowns and unknowns”, and to take steps to minimize risk.

Risk management is a more formal version of the analyses families do every day, when buying insurance, deciding where to live, or investing 401(k) money.  And risk management can offer an apolitical way forward-- perhaps the best way forward --on the complicated and highly politicized issue of climate change.  That’s the conclusion we’ve drawn from a year of closed-door meetings with national security, intelligence, and defense officials around the world as we researched the findings in a new report, Degrees of Risk: Defining a Risk Management Framework for Climate Security.

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