A letter from scientists to the new Congress on “The importance of science in addressing climate change”

Posted on  

"A letter from scientists to the new Congress on “The importance of science in addressing climate change”"

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was created by Abraham Lincoln and chartered by Congress in 1863 for the express purpose of obtaining objective expert advice on a range of complex scientific and technological issues. Its international reputation for integrity is unparalleled. This spring, at the request of Congress, the NAS issued a series of comprehensive reports on climate change that were unambiguous.

The NAS stated, “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities . . . and in many cases is already affecting a broad range of human and natural systems.”  This conclusion comes as no surprise to the overwhelming majority of working climate scientists.

A group of distinguished scientists today released a letter to each member of the 112th Congress urging them carefully consider the importance of science in climate change policy. The letter emphasizes the importance of truly understanding the science of climate change, and stresses the need to prevent political ideology from clouding our scientific understanding of how climate change is impacting our way of life.

The letter makes a strong case for separating science from politics stating, “Political philosophy has a legitimate role in policy debates, but not in the underlying climate science. There are no Democratic or Republican carbon dioxide molecules; they are all invisible and they all trap heat.”

The full letter is reproduced below:

To the Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate:

As you begin your deliberations in the new 112th Congress, we urge you to take a fresh look at climate change.  Climate change is not just an environmental threat but, as we describe below, also poses challenges to the U.S. economy, national security and public health.

Some view climate change as a futuristic abstraction. Others are unsure about the science, or uncertain about the policy responses. We want to assure you that the science is strong and that there is nothing abstract about the risks facing our Nation. Our coastal areas are now facing increasing dangers from rising sea levels and storm surges; the southwest and southeastare increasingly vulnerable to drought; other regions will need to prepare for massive flooding from the extreme storms of the sort being experienced with increasing frequency.  These and other consequences of climate change all require that we plan and prepare. Our military recognizes that the consequences of climate change have direct security implications for the country that will only become more acute with time, and it has begun the sort of planning required across the board.

The health of Americans is also at risk. The U.S. Climate Impacts Report, commissioned by the George W. Bush administration, states: “Climate change poses unique challenges to human health. Unlike health threats caused by a particular toxin or disease pathogen, there are many ways that climate change can lead to potentially harmful health effects. There are direct health impacts from heat waves and severe storms, ailments caused or exacerbated by air pollution and airborne allergens, and many climate-sensitive infectious diseases.”

As with the fiscal deficit, the changing climate is the kind of daunting problem that we, as a nation, would like to wish away. However, as with our growing debt, the longer we wait to address climate change, the worse it gets. Heat-trapping carbon dioxide is building up in the atmosphere because burning coal, oil, and natural gas produces far more carbon dioxide than is absorbed by oceans and forests. No scientist disagrees with that.  Our carbon debt increases each year, just as our national debt increases each year that spending exceeds revenue.  And our carbon debt is even longer-lasting; carbon dioxide molecules can last hundreds of years in the atmosphere.

The Science of Climate Change

It is not our role as scientists to determine how to deal with problems like climate change. That is a policy matter and rightly must be left to our elected leaders in discussion with all Americans.  But, as scientists, we have an obligation to evaluate, report, and explain the science behind climate change.

The debate about climate change has become increasingly ideological and partisan. But climate change is not the product of a belief system or ideology. Instead, it is based on scientific fact, and no amount of argument, coercion, or debate among talking heads in the media can alter the physics of climate change.

Political philosophy has a legitimate role in policy debates, but not in the underlying climate science. There are no Democratic or Republican carbon dioxide molecules; they are all invisible and they all trap heat.

The fruits of the scientific process are worthy of your trust.  This was perhaps best summed up in recent testimony before Congress by Dr. Peter Gleick, co-founder and director of the Pacific Institute and member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.  He testified that the scientific process “is inherently adversarial – scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That’s what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But no one who argues against the science of climate change has ever provided an alternative scientific theory that adequately satisfies the observable evidence or conforms to our understanding of physics, chemistry, and climate dynamics.”

National Academy of Sciences
What we know today about human-induced climate change is the result of painstaking research and analysis, some of it going back more than a century. Major international scientific organizations in disciplines ranging from geophysics to geology, atmospheric sciences to biology, and physics to human health – as well as every one of the leading national scientific academies worldwide – have concluded that human activity is changing the climate. This is not a “belief.” Instead, it is an objective evaluation of the scientific evidence.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was created by Abraham Lincoln and chartered by Congress in 1863 for the express purpose of obtaining objective expert advice on a range of complex scientific and technological issues. Its international reputation for integrity is unparalleled. This spring, at the request of Congress, the NAS issued a series of comprehensive reports on climate change that were unambiguous.

The NAS stated, “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities . . . and in many cases is already affecting a broad range of human and natural systems.”  This conclusion comes as no surprise to the overwhelming majority of working climate scientists.

Climate Change Deniers
Climate change deniers cloak themselves in scientific language, selectively critiquing aspects of mainstream climate science. Sometimes they present alternative hypotheses as an explanation of a particular point, as if the body of evidence were a house of cards standing or falling on one detail; but the edifice of climate science instead rests on a concrete foundation. As an open letter from 255 NAS members noted in the May 2010 Science magazine, no research results have produced any evidence that challenges the overall scientific understanding of what is happening to our planet’s climate and why.

The assertions of climate deniers therefore should not be given scientific weight equal to the comprehensive, peer-reviewed research presented by the vast majority of climate scientists.

The determination of policy sits with you, the elected representatives of the people. But we urge you, as our elected representatives, to base your policy decisions on sound science, not sound bites. Congress needs to understand that scientists have concluded, based on a systematic review of all of the evidence, that climate change caused by human activities raises serious risks to our national and economic security and our health both here and around the world. It’s time for Congress to move on to the policy debate.

How Can We Move Forward?
Congress should, we believe, hold hearings to understand climate science and what it says about the likely costs and benefits of action and inaction.  It should not hold hearings to attempt to intimidate scientists or to substitute ideological judgments for scientific ones. We urge our elected leaders to work together to focus the nation on what the science is telling us, particularly with respect to impacts now occurring around the country.

Already, there is far more carbon in the air than at any time in human history, with more being generated every day. Climate change is underway and the severity of the risks we face is compounded by delay.
We look to you, our representatives, to address the challenge of climate change, and lead the national response. We and our colleagues are prepared to assist you as you work to develop a rational and practical national policy to address this important issue.
Thank you for your attention.

Sincerely,

John Abraham, University of St. Thomas
Barry Bickmore, Brigham Young University
Gretchen Daily,* Stanford University
G. Brent Dalrymple,* Oregon State University
Andrew Dessler, Texas A&M University
Peter Gleick,* Pacific Institute
John Kutzbach,* University of Wisconsin-Madison
Syukuro Manabe,* Princeton University
Michael Mann, Penn State University
Pamela Matson,* Stanford University
Harold Mooney,* Stanford University
Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University
Ben Santer, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Richard Somerville, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Kevin Trenberth, National Center for Atmospheric Research
Warren Washington, National Center for Atmospheric Research
Gary Yohe, Wesleyan University
George Woodwell,* The Woods Hole Research Center
*Member of the National Academy of Sciences

–This is cross-posted at Science Progress where Sean Pool is the Assistant Editor.

« »

37 Responses to A letter from scientists to the new Congress on “The importance of science in addressing climate change”

  1. Tom Kimmerer says:

    We readers of Climate Progress could help amplify this letter by sending a letter of our own to our Representative and Senators emphasizing the importance of the NAS letter.

  2. TGriz says:

    Excellent letter. I particularly liked that they took on the subject of the deniers straight on. I’m doubtful this is going to do any good, cynical me, but one has to try to get our elected representatives to work towards the common good.

    We’ve already run out of time for a soft landing unless we somehow invent many giant CO2 sucking, permanent carbon sequestration machines, which is a nonsensical techno-fix that will never happen. So pull up a chair and get ready to watch the show…front row seats to the undoing of humankind, along with >90% of the other species on the planet.

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    Tom:

    I wonder how many people in the US are in the same boat I’m in regarding their elected representatives.

    My Senators are Schumer and Gillibrand, hardly two that need a push from me on climate change. My Representative in the House is a Republican who thinks “health care reform” means introducing a bill that would limit malpractice awards (and no, I’m not kidding). Good luck trying to get him on our side.

    In other words, where is the middle ground among politicians that can be swayed by mere voters?

  4. cervantes says:

    Sorry, but that’s way above Inhofe’s literacy level. Too many 3 syllable words and subordinate clauses.

  5. Scrooge says:

    This should be referenced every time a member of congress makes a statement of denial. It would be nice if the msm would do the same like saying even though such and such was told by scientists about AGW he/she still says this.

  6. Steve Bloom says:

    Lou, I’m quite sure that both Gillibrand and Schumer could do better. Re your Rep., you might try asking for an in-district meeting together with any local scientists that might be available.

  7. TGriz says:

    @Lou – This is a vanilla or chocolate issue, as far as the science is concerned. Take middle ground on solutions only. But at present, either the dip-sh*t deniers are in the majority, or the rational thinkers are in the closet.

    Cheers!

  8. Bill W says:

    Cervantes at #3 re Inhofe, add “and not enough dollar signs”.

  9. Paulm says:

    Good start. I hope we see much more proactive action by scientist.

  10. Peter Sergienko says:

    Great letter.

    Two thoughts: (1) Will this be reported at all in the mainstream media? (2) There should be a campaign to recruit scientists from colleges and universities around the country to sign on to this letter.

    While adding professors from the Ivy League schools (in addition to Princeton) and from MIT, Cal Tech and Berkley could add force to this, it would be very useful to add professors from major colleges and universities all across the country, but especially institutions in the South and Midwest that cannot be brushed aside as bastions of liberal elitism. All politics is local. Members of Congress need to understand that this issue is important to their constituents. Where are the voices from institutions in states that were hit by Katrina and the BP Gulf Oil gusher and staring at devastating impacts from ocean acidification and sea level rise? Surely there are tenured professors at institutions such as the Universities of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss and so on that could and should sign on to this letter. A particularly useful activity for student environmental groups could be highlighting this letter for qualified faculty members and asking them to sign it.

  11. Leader says:

    Amazing letter. The United States has to step it up and become more responsible for this issue. We need to work together to save the Earth!

  12. Jeff Huggins says:

    The New York Times?

    Let’s see whether The New York Times will cover this letter, and if so, on what page.

    Andy Revkin, will you please prompt and encourage The Times to cover it, on the front page as it should be?

    Paul Krugman, please please, will you please encourage and prompt The Times to cover this letter?

    Thomas Friedman?

    I applaud the folks who sent this letter. Bravo! I only wish that you had gotten even more (many more) people to sign it.

    And I think that the scientific organizations owe it to science, to society, and to themselves, to NOT see this as a sufficient notice to Congress — and to send more and more of such letters (as joint letters from the organizations themselves, and from individual organizations). Congressmen and Congresswomen should be “put on notice”, and that (unfortunately) takes more than one letter. So, please, a note to the science organizations: Send such letters, jointly when possible, and INSIST that the media cover them, and do it again, and (also) host seminars for members of Congress to explain the science, and the problem, in plain English and in understandable form. Take ALL POSSIBLE STEPS to inform Congress, put Congress on notice (so to speak), let the public know that you’re doing so, offer free and convenient seminars to Congressmen and Congresswomen, and do everything possible so that a Congressman can’t reasonably say, at the end of the day, that he disagrees with the science or that there is too much uncertainty to warrant action. In other words, do what it takes to eliminate excuses, so that any Congressperson who claims (as an excuse for not acting) that the science is wrong or unconvincing or too uncertain will look like a selfish irresponsible nitwit. (Sorry for the blunt terminology, but you know what I mean.)

    Thanks again for this letter. Bravo!

    Jeff

  13. Sailesh Rao says:

    @TGriz #2: The “giant CO2-sucking, permanent carbon sequestration” entities that you seek are called Forests. In addition, forests prevent biodiversity loss, clean up the pollutants in the atmosphere, prevent soil erosion, etc., etc. To allow forests to regenerate, we need to reduce our consumer footprints and make it socially taboo to have large footprints. As more people climb up the development ladder and take their rightful place at the consumption trough, our current obsession with achieving infinite affluence will look increasingly suicidal.

  14. Bob Lang says:

    Why didn’t the letter state that on our current trajectory most of the U.S. will be uninhabitable by the end of this century. Talk about a “National Security Threat”.

    Just look at the map of the “Palmer Drought Severity Index” for the years 2090-2099 recently published by NCAR:

    http://www2.ucar.edu/news/2904/climate-change-drought-may-threaten-much-globe-within-decades

  15. Mike says:

    I am posting this in the comments to weather news in various local papers:

    This again underscores the fact that we are changing Earth’s climate in some very unpleasant ways. Today a group of scientists released a letter they have sent to Congress on the why climate change needs to be taken seriously.

    To the Members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate:

    As you begin your deliberations in the new 112th Congress, we urge you to take a fresh look at climate change. Climate change is not just an environmental threat but, as we describe below, also poses challenges to the U.S. economy, national security and public health.

    Some view climate change as a futuristic abstraction. Others are unsure about the science, or uncertain about the policy responses. We want to assure you that the science is strong and that there is nothing abstract about the risks facing our Nation.

    http://theprojectonclimatescience.org/2011/02/the-importance-of-science-in-addressing-climate-change/

  16. Michael Tucker says:

    These scientists are very smart guys so I know they do not expect to change any minds. I sure hope they get the media coverage I know they are after but, with the Middle East in crisis, now was not a good time for the letter. It will probably get as much attention as John Holdren’s Sunday interview.

  17. Great letter.

    Alas, our changing climate is a reality that we choose to discover or to ignore. Mainstream media can help or hinder.

    But the changes to climate and oceans will still happen whether it is reported or not. And US Congress voting against change will not prevent change from happening.

    This really defines our civilization.

  18. nicteis says:

    An excellent letter, honest, respectful and forceful. Of particular value, I think, was the framing of the problem as a “carbon debt”. Dubious as it may be whether Republican members of congress can be reached by reason, it can only help to adopt language that dovetails with the sound bites that forever ricochet around inside their heads.

    Superficial, perhaps. But the beleaguered planet is not dealing with profound minds.

  19. peter says:

    This is really an excellent letter.

  20. Timeslayer says:

    I like that they consistently used the term “climate change”, and not once “global warming”, which, as I’ve been telling people since 2006, is a woefully misleading term for what is happening and therefore should be abandoned. Not that these terms matter to the pigheaded Republicans in Congress, but at least it is a sign that leading scientists might be starting to get on the same page and call it by its proper and fitting name, climate change.

    TS

  21. catman306 says:

    Reverse psychology bumper sticker phrase:

    Why Save the Earth?

  22. OregonStream says:

    Good letter, but the full NRC statement from May 2010 seems a bit more effective than the one they featured:

    A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems…”

    http://dels.nas.edu/Report/Advancing-Science-Climate-Change/12782

  23. Peter M says:

    The Public is still out of the loop with the dangers of climate change. Did any News organization tonight give NAS letter air time?

    What is at stake is our changing environment- be it the crushing weight of snow and ice in the northeast, or A cat 5 Cyclone heading for Cairns Australia- It is altering tor civilization and now, in so many ways.

    The MSM has decided to ignore all of it. Blind world.

  24. I find the featured letter to congress insipid. It lacks bite; it lacks alarm; it lacks urgency. Where is the discussion about feedbacks? Where does it mention the ever rising atmospheric CO2 concentration? Where does it mention the decade by decade increase in average global temperature? Of continuing sea level rise? Of glacier melting and Arctic sea ice melting? Of Greenland ice melting?

    It is a gentlemanly letter whose message is one that suggests it would be appropriate to have a leisurely discussion after more important congressional business is finished.This letter is likely to accomplish nothing.

  25. Alec Johnson says:

    I liked everything about the letter except where it referenced the national debt. The debt is all the republican wing-nuttery want to talk about and it pales in comparison with other more pressing problems, as the regular readers of this blog know all too well. My understanding is that as large as the debt is, it isn’t as great a percentage of GDP than we carried after WWII. This new, near singular focus on the debt is used to shunt anything else out of view and is disingenuous at best given that those professing concern develop sudden amnesia when the Pentagon’s budget or tax cuts for the rich are considered.

    Still, I applaud the NAS for taking this step. Short of scientists setting themselves on fire on the steps of Congress, I’m not sure what else they can do. After all, they are not being deficient to any noticeable degree at all. Those who tar their souls with the stain of denialism are to blame and I, for one, think we should stop being so very nice to them. They deserve a place at the table Hosni Mubarak finds himself sitting at. I fear that until we can put masses in the streets in numbers similar to those now appearing in Cairo, progress in this critical area will remain elusive.

  26. Wit's End says:

    This letter brought tears to my eyes. Just. Perfect.

    MoreMoreMore.

  27. Biomapper says:

    2011 – the year the weather broke. People might not pay attention to letters like this but they will start to pay attention to things like this crushing storm stretching from Oklahoma to Maine. We’ve seen recent media reports linking intense weather to climate change and I now expect to see these stories become the norm. Even if it is only because journalists now see this as a better selling story than the point-counterpoint dreck we’ve been served for the last 20 years.

  28. Biomapper says:

    I should add that I will be forwarding this excellent letter on to my new governor. The one who tonight refused to postpone the state of the state address but then later declared 29 counties disasters. Also the same one who cancelled a funded rail project between our two largest cities and who is now trying to establish siting guidelines farm wind farms that are so stringent they will ensure that no further wind farms will be built in this state.

  29. Peter M says:

    #24 Phillip Eisner is right- what is with the Pleasant decorum of these scientists? I know here in southern New England homes are being compromised with water entering (Now mine) roof cave ins- caused by a relentless weather pattern that is likely to be a 1 in 500 to 1000 year event.

    Obviously the NSA Letter is too weak and non confronting to accomplish anything. Was it ever mentioned in the Media?

    Today I will be calling the New Governor of the State of Connecticut Dannel P Malloy, who at least acknowledges global warming is happening. Hopefully he realizes that Connecticut is in fact seeing what it can bring,

  30. TGriz says:

    @#13 Sailesh – Forests are decidedly NOT permanent carbon sinks. What are you suggesting kind sir? They are a temporary, “feel good” sink, and climate physics does not look kindly on feel good solutions. Forests eventually exhale, i.e., trees die and rot, and then what?

    Forests have been mentioned for years as some kind of solution to global climate change. It takes a quick read of any high school textbook on the carbon cycle to understand that once fossil carbon enters the cycle, we are stuck with it for geologic time, whether it exists in a temporarily locked up state or as CO2. In a couple hundred years, it is back as CO2, or worse yet, CH4.

  31. Dennis says:

    The problem with this is that it is a letter from scientists, not an official statement by the NAS or any other scientific organizations. It’s easy for a deniers like Inhofe to just say “that’s your opinion” and wave his own silly report in the air. The NAS, AAAS, and other scientific organizations need to jointly approve and issue an identical statement. And that statement in particular needs to include what this letter says:

    ” …no research results have produced any evidence that challenges the overall scientific understanding of what is happening to our planet’s climate and why” and “The assertions of climate deniers therefore should not be given scientific weight equal to the comprehensive, peer-reviewed research presented by the vast majority of climate scientists.”

  32. Robert In New Orleans says:

    You can lead a Republican to science, but you cannot make him believe it.

  33. peter whitehead says:

    Do politicians read letters that do not contain money?

  34. Chris Winter says:

    Yes, Peter Whitehead, if they promise to withhold votes. I’ve heard it said that one such letter represents 100 votes lost.

  35. Chris Winter says:

    Philip Eisner wrote (#24): “I find the featured letter to congress insipid. It lacks bite; it lacks alarm; it lacks urgency.”

    This letter reflects the mindset of the scientists who wrote it — a mindset necessary for the conduct of good science. It makes the case for believing in climate science, and specifically in the statements of the NAS, in a logical manner backed by evidence. The tone of the letter is exactly right, given its origins.

    I’ll agree it’s not short and punchy. It lacks hyperbolic language. So much the better. It hits the main issue straight on: that people aptly called Deniers have been denying the existence of well-known scientific facts, to the detriment of all of us. It reminds the Congress that the NAS has a reputation for integrity, and that it has already issued a report stating the facts on climate change. (Not all members of Congress need reminding, but some do.)

    If you want something more dramatic, think of Klaatu’s final speech in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

    http://www.coolidge.org/node/2833

    That might be a good model.

  36. James Newberry says:

    This represents a worthwhile beginning toward a stronger effort.

    Perhaps researchers and professors at other institutions like Harvard, Yale and Columbia might like to join in similar efforts.

    Of course, the physical reality of the situation is similar to rearranging deck chairs on a Titanic at full steam ahead. There is climate momentum, economic momentum and there are amplifying feedbacks such as methane hydrates and white ice turning to dark green ocean, as we write our letters.

  37. Edward says:

    I agree with 24 & 29. The letter is just too weak to catch the mind of a republican politician. First, you have to get their attention.