When House Speaker John Boehner told a group of reporters on Thursday that he would not discuss climate change on the grounds that he, himself, was not a scientist, he joined the ranks of other prominent Republican politicians who have refused to talk about the issue on the same grounds.
“I’m not a scientist,” said Florida Governor Rick Scott last week, when asked if he thought man-made climate change was affecting the weather. “I’m not a scientist,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in 2009, his first in a long line of statement denying climate change. “I’m not sure, I’m not a scientist,” said Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) said of climate change in 2010 (Grimm changed his mind on the issue this past April).
The tactic is an interesting (and seemingly effective) way for politicians to avoid acknowledging or denying the reality of climate change while still getting to fight against any regulation to stop it. But actual climate scientists say the tactic is irresponsible, dangerous, and ignores the fact that credible scientific information is readily available.
“Personally, I don’t think it proper for any American to use that argument,” said Donald. J Wuebbles, a distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences and coordinating lead author for the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 assessment report.
Wuebbles, who was also a lead author on the recently released National Climate Assessment, said that report was written by scientists and other experts specifically so that members of Congress could understand climate change and how it affects the country. With that report available, he said, climate change should be “readily understood by any policymaker.”
“The assessment represents the latest understanding of the science and is the most comprehensive report ever prepared for the American people on climate change,” Wuebbles said. “The report itself was done for Congress under a law passed by Congress.”
Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, went even further, calling Boehner’s comments a “pathetic dodge” that doesn’t make sense in the context of political decision-making.
“What if we asked ‘Senator: do you advocate drinking toxic sludge?’ or ‘Senator: is jumping off the north rim of the Grand Canyon safe?’ or ‘Senator: should I place my head in the jaws of this lion?’,” Mann said. “Would the response still be be ‘I don’t know, I’m not a scientist’?”
Mann noted that politicians have no qualms making statements about other political issues — abortion and public health, for example — because they are supposed to use established science to inform their decisions. Climate change, though, is a different story, he said.
“Why is it somehow different when it comes to the climate change threat and the need to regulate carbon emissions — something opposed by fossil fuel interests like the Koch Brothers who fund so many of these politicians campaigns — why is it in this case different?” he said. “That, of course, is a rhetorical question.”
2013 American Meteorological Society president Marshall Shepherd, however, said both politicians and scientists need to back away from inflammatory rhetoric and start actively working together on solutions. He acknowledged that politicians should not make statements about climate change without knowledge of peer-reviewed science, but said climatologists must also live up to their responsibility to make sure policymakers are well-informed.
“I am certain that no policymaker is an expert on many different topics that cross their desk but they have to be considered,” he said, noting that scientists have an “obligation to ensure that public and policymakers don’t fall victim to being duped because of lack of science knowledge.”
“I think scientists that are too overtly political or activist lose credibility. Likewise, a stakeholder or policymaker speaking definitely on climate without any background or from non-peer reviewed perspectives is also dangerous,” he said. “I have long argued that we have to remove the vitriol and name-calling and work to help each other in the discussion.”