Thursday, November 6, 2014

Science and Politics - Two Big Events in Climate Change This Week

It's been a big week for climate change. There was one huge event that went largely unnoticed, and one less consequential event that was the talk of the town. That fact represents a major obstacle for action to deal with the unequivocal science that says humans are warming the planet.

Let's start with the big event. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the international organization that summarizes the state-of-climate-science every seven years, issued its Synthesis Report on November 2nd. As the name suggests, this is the final report in the series and synthesizes the voluminous data from the three scientific working group reports issued over the past year. As their "headline" document notes, the combined reports state unequivocally:

1) Warming of the climate system is unequivocal,

2) Humans are the dominant cause of this warming,

3) Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems,

4) Man-made climate change is a threat to sustainable development, and

5) We must act now.

The unequivocal science that led to all of these conclusions has been documented in great detail in the working group reports already issued; this final report simply summarizes the main points so that policymakers can discuss options to deal with the ramifications of the science. Action is necessary, and necessary action must begin now. The consequences of inaction are dire.

Unfortunately, this critical IPCC report was largely ignored by the media and policymakers alike because....ooh, there was an election!!

What the election means....

Which gets us to the second big event that will, in fact, likely be inconsequential when it comes to taking action. The mid-term elections in the United States occurred on Tuesday, November 4th. As expected, in large part due to the huge Democratic wins in Republican-leaning states six years ago, the Republican party took control of the Senate. Republicans have already controlled the House since 2010. With a united Congress (such as it is), this increases the chances that bills will actually be passed and sent to the President.

That sounds good, right? Not really. Because the Republicans gained control due both to vagaries of the calendar and indebtedness to the tea party, all bills will have to pander to the most extreme elements in both houses of Congress. With respect to man-made climate change this means no bills that honestly deal with the science will ever reach the President. Instead, denial of the science and attacks on science organizations and funding will be the main order of business. This is exactly what the Republican-led House has been doing for four years, and now the Senate can do it too.

So with the conservative climate denial machine (both the tea party and climate denial get major funding and organization through the Koch brothers lobbying network) now in positions to attack science, why is this so inconsequential?

On the one hand it is very much consequential. Efforts to defund science and block action are likely to get further along than in the previous Congress. But on the other hand, no bills honestly dealing with climate were getting to the President anyway because of House denial. Meanwhile, the Republican minority in the Senate successfully manipulated the closure process such that not even the simplest bills could get through without multiple 60-vote majorities. True, now that they control both houses, Republicans can pass bills, but that means they have to take responsibility for them. While most of the Republican leadership has willingly pandered to the denialist elements (and will make those denialists chairs of the relevant science committees), they know that the science is unequivocal and some action must be taken. They've held back economic growth and jobs to hurt the President, but are they willing to throw America under the bus forever? Unfortunately, the answer isn't all that clear.

The most likely scenario is that the Senate won't allow the most egregiously denialistic House bills to get through the Senate. For the merely ceremonial denialist bills the Republicans in the Senate could send them to the President, who will promptly veto anything that doesn't begin to take responsibility for the science.

The science, by the way, that demonstrates warming of the climate system is unequivocal, humans are the dominant cause, has already had widespread impacts on human and natural systems, is a threat to sustainable development, and action is immediately necessary.

You know, the unequivocal science that is documented in the many thousands of pages summarizing the state-of-the-climate as put forth by the IPCC reports largely ignored this week.

Yeah, that science.

To paraphrase Leonardo da Vinci, "And yet it warms."