AAAS Panel Says Issues Beyond Cap and Trade Are Critical for Climate Change Discussions

With recent cap and trade climate legislation apparently stalled in the U.S. Senate, a panel at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy urged policy makers and scientists to look at climate change issues beyond simply reducing emissions.

Greenhouse gas restrictions should be a critical component of the nation’s climate change response, the panelists agreed. But they also called for more attention to other dimensions of climate change: adaptation as another major way to cope with or avoid harmful impacts; the potential benefits of geoengineering; the implications of climate change on national security; and the role that scientists should, or should not, play in high-profile policy debates.

Kristie L. Ebi

Kristie L. Ebi

Kristie L. Ebi, executive director of the Technical Support Unit for Working Group II (Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), said that even with an immediate reduction in carbon emissions, the current levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions commit the globe to several decades of rising temperatures, sea-level rise, and weather extremes.

To lessen the economic and social impacts of climate change, Ebi called on world governments to develop adaptation strategies to manage the wide range of risks of climate change, including improving emergency response and early warning systems.

“There is a perception that mitigation is more urgent,” said Ebi. “But reducing emissions and lessening climate change’s impacts need to be given equal footing.”

Alan Robock

Alan Robock

Ebi spoke 13 May at the 2010 AAAS S&T Forum alongside Alan Robock, professor of environmental sciences at Rutgers University; Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University; Sherri Goodman, senior vice president and general counsel at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis firm; and Paul C. Stern, director of the Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change at the National Research Council. The session was moderated by John Carey, a freelance writer and former senior correspondent for Business Week.

Held 13-14 May at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C., the 35th Annual Forum attracted more than 500 attendees for sessions on international scientific engagement; the role of science and technology in national security; societal impacts of S&T; and the budget outlook for the U.S. government R&D portfolio.

Ebi called for more federal leadership to help regions identify the communities that are most vulnerable to climate variability and change, and adaptation strategies to address those risks. She said that Hurricane Katrina’s impact was severe not only because of the strength of the storm and subsequent flooding, but also because of the underlying poverty in low-lying wards of New Orleans.

To increase public understanding of climate change, Ebi suggested talking with groups engaged in outdoor recreation or hobbies about the climate-related changes they have observed. While Arctic ice models may be too complex for the public to find useful, an ornithology society might be able to communicate the risks of climate change through observed changes in bird migration patterns, or gardening clubs may notice changes in the first spring bud.

Ebi said that many nations in the Pacific and Caribbean have been engaged in adapting to climate change for over twenty years. An example occurred during the 1997-1998 El Niño season—which affected precipitation patterns and caused other weather changes. Pacific island nations were able to prepare for the expected impacts by providing public information on water conservation, reviewing emergency plans, and reinforcing public health surveillance and control programs.

Beyond adaptation, some experts have proposed controlling the environment to counteract the effects of climate change. Known as geoengineering, examples include placing large solar panels into orbit to reflect sunlight, pumping iron into the world’s oceans to increase their capacity as carbon sinks, and injecting aerosols into the atmosphere to block sunlight.

While some see geoengineering as a relatively inexpensive and quick response to climate change, Robock has strong concerns about altering the climate. In August 2008, he published an article in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists listing 20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea.

Citing additional articles and climate modeling, Robock analyzed historical climate data in the decades following large volcanic eruptions that injected sulfur into the stratosphere to model the potential benefits and dangers of injecting tiny aerosol particles into the atmosphere to block sunlight.

He found that following the 1793 eruption of Laki in Iceland, most of the Northern Hemisphere experienced cooling, and the summer monsoon over Africa and Asia produced much less precipitation. Writers traveling through Egypt at the time also documented droughts and famine due to low water volume on the Nile River. Other famines occurred throughout Asia.

Robock listed additional potential consequences of geoengineering: rapid global temperature rise once the geoengineering stops; inability to stop geoengineering quickly if necessary; continued ocean acidification; ozone depletion; and less solar radiation for solar power generation.

Beyond physical consequences of geoengineering, Robock highlighted its social and political implications, including the perception that mitigation efforts are no longer necessary, deciding which nations get to determine the proper course of action, and how the optimal change in climate would be determined.

“We have to ask ourselves if we even have a moral right to [deliberately] modify the global climate,” he said.

Referencing recommendations from the American Geophysical Union and American Meteorological Society, Robock called on scientists to quantify the consequences and benefits of geoengineering so that “society can make an informed decision.” The scientific societies highlighted the need for “transparency and international cooperation in exploring geoengineering options.”

Sherri Goodman

Sherri Goodman

Goodman, whose nonprofit organization provides analysis on issues such as national security and military operations, cited the conclusions of a 2007 CNA panel composed of 11 senior military leaders that found projected climate change and energy dependence as national security threats to the United States.

Goodman said that by threatening clean water, food resources, human health, and the increased likelihood of extreme weather conditions, “climate change is a threat multiplier for instability in the most volatile regions of the world.”

As an example, Goodman cited the Himalayan glaciers, which are sources of freshwater reserves providing headwaters for major river systems in Asia—a lifeline for almost half of humanity.

As climate change affects surface temperatures and precipitation levels, the size and timing of the Himalayan glacier melt—which provides water to 1.3 billion people and food and energy production for 3 billion people—could change, raising national tensions in Asia.

Beyond climate change, Goodman warned that U.S. dependence on foreign oil “constitutes a serious and urgent threat to national security…militarily, diplomatically and economically” by entangling the U.S. with hostile regimes, undermining economic stability, and crippling the nation’s foreign policy.

Calling national security, energy policy, and climate change interrelated, Goodman said that “continuing energy business-as-usual creates an unacceptably high threat level from a series of converging risks.”

Goodman said that achieving the nation’s energy goals will require strong leadership and continued commitment. With the Department of Defense representing the largest single consumer of energy in the United States (2% of total energy consumption), she said that the military has an opportunity to be a “technical innovator and early adopter” of energy-efficient technology. She cited three technologies already in use in the field: solar energy panels, a “green hornet” F/A-18 aircraft that runs on biofuel; and insulating foam for tents in Afghanistan.

Daniel Sarewitz

Daniel Sarewitz

Sarewitz said that figuring out how to get the public onboard with climate science will require better political approaches.

Citing a March 2010 Gallup poll of attitudes towards science, Sarewitz pointed to data showing that conservatives are more likely to believe that climate science is exaggerated, and liberals more likely to believe the reports are accurate and require stronger action. While some may brush off the findings as uninteresting, Sarewitz finds the study very compelling, crediting the differences to how each group perceives costs and risks and who counts as an expert.

Sarewitz suggested that some climate scientists might be guilty of “overselling their research,” adding that researchers need to “tone down claims of [science’s] omnipotence.”

“Climate science is incredibly complex and scientists need to be more forthright with gaps of missing information,” he said, adding that IPCC reports suggest a wide range of possible temperature increases in the coming century—ranging from 1.1 to 6.4 degrees Centigrade.

Sarewitz suggested that scientists and policy makers should focus on short-term actions that would bring cheap and fast successes. By showing that addressing climate change can bring inexpensive, reliable solutions, the public would be more likely to accept additional policies, he said, making “the politics of climate change safe for the science.”

Paul C. Stern

Paul C. Stern

Stern stressed the importance of recognizing that climate science has multiple human dimensions: the causes of climate change (emissions); consequences (vulnerabilities and resilience); responses (mitigation, adaptation, or geoengineering); and understanding (knowledge and politics).

Stern said that climate science is “inherently difficult to understand” due to its complexity. Elements of the complexity include: multiple sectors of change (water supply, weather, or ecosystem); being able to observe weather but not climate; inability to reply on personal experience; and the fact that change is slow and variable.

“People’s daily observations of weather are poor models for climate change,” he said.

Stern said although there has been little federal investment in understanding the human dimensions of climate change in the past, there are some “rays of hope.”

He cited an increasing interest in human-environment science at the National Science Foundation, a restructuring of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s climate program office to give more attention to information users’ needs, and the creation of a Department of Energy behavioral interest group that might lead to efforts to understand the adoption and use of energy-efficient technologies and public acceptance of new energy supply technologies.

Links

See more news from the 2010 AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum.

Get details about the program and speakers at this year’s Forum.