Science ÷ politics = a loss for everyone

Yesterday’s House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on "Climate Change: Examining the Processes Used to Create Science and Policy" wais billed as focusing on the scientific process, which hasd the potential to be a very productive and enlightening discussion. But given the tone the discussion took, one has to wonder what the real purpose of the hearing was?

The processes that govern scientific research and discovery are well established and widely accepted around the world. In fact, the practice of peer review as it relates to the publishing of scientific findings dates back to the mid-1800s. And, many scientific organizations — the American Geophysical Union included — have taken public positions regarding the vital need for “full and open sharing of data... for research and education," recognizing that it can “foster scientific advances, yield, economic benefits, improve decision-making, enhance public safety and wellbeing, contribute to national and global security, and lead to a more informed public.”

Results of these scientific processes have included human flight, life-saving drugs, telecommunications, abundant food, and clean water and air. And, these same processes are now helping us understand how and why our climate is changing, the risks involved and the options for managing those risks. 

Therein perhaps lies the problem. Climate change has quickly become a political issue, not a scientific one.

Despite overwhelming agreement across disciplines within the scientific community of its occurrence and the impact of human activity, there has continued to be much political debate, with climate change even playing a significant role in the current FY11 budget proposals. Thus far, we’ve seen proposals that eliminate funding for the President’s energy and climate advisor and for the State Department's climate envoy to international climate negotiations, as well as participation in the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s proposed Climate Service.

As it relates to the IPCC and NOAA’s Climate Service, those funding bans will limit access to a wide array of scientific data and information about climate, extreme weather events and seasonal forecasting, including the ability to leverage international knowledge and research, all of which could help inform mitigation and adaptation strategies worldwide. 

Of course, all of this is happening with very little discussion of how climate change, and its influence on extreme weather events, does and will impact the American people and our economy. Consider this:

  • -Strained by increasing adverse weather event trends, the overall risk of exposure for the National Flood Insurance Program in 2005 had reached $1 trillion, a four-fold increase since 1980.
  • Without satellite data provided by NOAA, precipitation rate predictions in the southern U.S. could be off by as much as 50 percent. For the February 6, 2010 storm that paralyzed DC and the Mid-Atlantic coast (“Snowmaggedon”), the snow would have been under-forecast by at least 10 inches.
  • Decreased precipitation levels are predicted to result in a net agricultural income loss for the San Antonio Texas Edwards Aquifer region alone of 16 to 29 percent by 2030.
  • Polar satellites provide weather forecasting for the $700 billion maritime commerce sector and provide a value of hundreds of millions of dollars for the fishing industry. The satellites save some $200 million per year for the aviation industry in volcanic ash forecasting alone and provide drought forecasts worth $6-8 billion to farming, transportation, tourism and energy sectors.

Economic vitality, national security, public health and environmental sustainability all depend on making the best use of science in formulating public policy, including climate science. If political pressure squelches scientific research, climate change will not magically disappear, but the objective knowledge needed to inform good decisions will.

Isn’t there too much at stake to allow politics to take precedence over science?

Christine W. McEntee is executive director of the American Geophysical Union.