Political challenges to climate science at home and abroad

Getty Images

Tasmanian devils screeched nearby as I walked with two scientists from U.S. and Australia along the rugged coastline of Cape Grim, Tasmania. Having yet to begin graduate school, it was a highlight of my 1998-99 Fulbright scholar year in Australia to join my mentors at this "baseline" air pollution monitor. My research that year studied how natural processes in the Southern Ocean influence levels of methyl iodide in this remote region.

ADVERTISEMENT
Now those once abundant Tasmanian devil populations have been decimated by contagious facial tumors. Meanwhile, Australia and the United States are pursuing our own self-inflicted wounds to the agencies that employed my mentors: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S. Malignant actions by politicians in each country threaten to blind ourselves to the realities of climate change and stifle needed research as our planet warms.

The Cape Grim monitor is just one of many climate science resources in jeopardy as the Australian government moves to cut funding to CSIRO. The agency is the premier institution leading monitoring and modeling of the atmosphere in the Southern Hemisphere, which is far less researched than the more populous Northern Hemisphere.

The proposed CSIRO cuts dash hopes that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull might bolster Australia's environmental standing after he succeeded Tony Abbott, an avowed denier who called climate change "absolute crap." Turnbull had previously supported a carbon emissions trading plan, a position that contributed to his ouster by Abbott as leader of Australia's right-leaning Liberal Party.

Turnbull chooses an ironic time to turn against climate science. The Paris Climate Agreement committed countries around the world to reduce their climate warming emissions. Tropical Cyclone Winston recently made history as the strongest cyclone ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. The NOAA reports that 2015 was the warmest year in recorded history, with record warmth extending into 2016.

Funding for science at federal agencies is faring better in the United States than Australia, as the December 2015 budget deal between Congress and President Obama bolstered budgets for NOAA, NASA and other agencies. However, NOAA climate science faces political challenges of a different sort.

Last June, NOAA scientists published research showing that climate had in fact continued to warm despite prior claims of a hiatus in warming in the early 2000s. Scientists continue to grapple with how to characterize the complex temperature trends of a decade ago, even as the NOAA reports temperatures in 2015 soared to new records.

Yet even before the science could proceed, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, subpoenaed the NOAA in October 2015 for the emails of climate scientists who had authored the June study. The NOAA responded with a letter later that month detailing extensive information and briefings it had provided to the committee, but refusing to release the scientists' emails and technical communications.

After Smith modified his request with a Dec. 1 letter focusing on records from NOAA communications staff, the NOAA complied with a limited release of materials to the committee. The release failed to appease Smith, who issued a Feb. 22 subpoena demanding that the NOAA submit more documents.

As subpoenas of scientists drag on, climate science is dragged down, too. I am just one of thousands of scientists who routinely email colleagues at the NOAA, NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for collaborations, data requests and other matters. Could any of those emails be dragged into a dragnet in the next round of congressional subpoenas? One coal mining executive suggested to Smith that he extend his subpoenas to communications by scientists in leading professional societies. One of the societies he suggested to target is the American Meteorological Society, which helped fund my research as a student.

Cuts to CSIRO climate science, subpoenas of NOAA emails, and impugning the reputations of scientists and their societies does nothing to quench the warming of our planet. Given the complex interplay among emissions, air quality and climate, better scientific understanding can actually save money by pointing the way to lower cost solutions that enhance net benefits.

In his original preface to "Animal Farm," George Orwell wrote, "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." Hear-no-evil, see-no-evil politicians may take solace from hushing unwelcome findings for now. Ultimately, though, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., only light can drive out darkness, and only through liberated science and communications can we develop sensible strategies for curbing climate change. Policy makers should ensure climate science does not join Tasmanian devils on a list of endangered species.

Cohan is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University. His research specializes in the development of photochemical models and their application to air quality management; uncertainty analysis energy policy; and health impact studies. 

More in International

How 'Brexit' would inflame populism abroad — and here in the US

Read more »