Uncertainty Should Be Powerful Motivator on Climate, Expert Says

With climate change science under political attack in the United States and little global consensus on how to move forward, an eminent climate policy expert urged that scientists and policy leaders embrace the persuasive power of uncertainty.

Mohamed El-Ashry and Vicki Seyfert-Margolis. Credits: (Seyfert-Margolis) Immune Tolerance Network; (El-Ashry) United Nations Foundation

There is no doubt that humans are causing climate change and that existing technology can limit greenhouse gas emissions, Mohamed El-Ashry said at the 10th Annual Science & Technology in Society Conference cosponsored by AAAS. But science and policy leaders might gain more traction in the public debate over emissions by “highlighting the uncertainty of what might happen over the next 50 years, which is much scarier,” he said.

El-Ashry, a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation, suggested that the challenging political climate requires science and policy leaders to refine their strategy—and bolster their credibility—both in the United States and around the world. New research must explore climate change impacts in developing nations, he said, and the United States must lead by example to build a new global consensus on climate.

The conference—“Innovating the Future: Critical Perspectives in Science & Technology”—brought several top policy leaders together with more than 125 graduate students in Washington, D.C. The event, held 9 to 11 April, was cosponsored by AAAS, the National Academies and the ST Global Consortium, comprised of six U.S. and European universities.

While El-Ashry and the other plenary speakers covered a range of topics, all shared a common theme: bringing the latest science and technology to bear on global challenges.

Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, cited Google’s plans to show that ultra-high-speed broadband in U.S. cities can be done economically.

Vicki Seyfert-Margolis, senior advisor to the chief scientist at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said that her agency, which regulates one-quarter of the U.S. economy, will use science to increase public safety and drive innovation.

“We need more innovative and transparent processes for drug development and approval to encourage scientists and pharmaceutical companies to develop the next generation of life-saving drugs,” she said. “We are beginning to address this with our new initiative in regulatory science.”

John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, stressed that President Barack Obama is committed to maintaining the U.S. competitive advantage through strong budget support for science and technology and related educational fields. But Holdren, a former AAAS president, rejected claims that “one country’s gain is another’s loss.”

“There are many benefits to other countries increasing their science and technology investments,” he said, “including more partners with whom our scientists can collaborate.”

El-Ashry, born in Egypt, is the former chief executive officer and chairman of the Global Environment Facility, an independent financial organization which creates partnerships among international institutions, nongovernmental organizations, the private sector, and 181 member governments to address environmental issues. He has held high-ranking research, teaching, and administrative positions in organizations as diverse as Cairo University, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the World Bank.

Echoing Holdren’s remarks on international science, El-Ashry called for more regional modeling of climate change and better assessment of how healthy ecosystems support local and national economies.

Focusing on local effects—like harsher weather conditions or changes in the timing of snowmelt used in agriculture—could help governments recognize that climate change has an impact “not just over there in the Arctic,” he said, “but on our farms and within our borders.”

El-Ashry said that access to clean energy also could be critical, both for building political support in the United States and bringing developing nations into climate discussions.