Politics aside, can climate change and science policy be successful?

By Kelly Ramirez

This past week my fellow ECEcol contributors have posted on climate change science, public perceptions, and the need for action. With election results in and Barack Obama the clear winner, what does this mean for the climate change and environmental policies of the US, and the world?

How will the Obama Administration move forward with climate change policy? Photo credit: Kelly Ramirez, 2012

While there was a collective sigh of relief across the country by democrats, the scientific community is still holding its breath. How will President Obama’s environmental policy evolve over the next four years? If the campaign is any indication, it seems unlikely that much will be accomplished. Indeed, there is much skepticism from the scientific community that anything will change. Though President Obama has given his stance on climate change, albeit weakly, and there have been ‘efforts’ since 2008 (summarized here and here), so maybe we shouldn’t lose hope just yet.

As you anxiously analyze the potential paths the Obama administration will take in the next four years, lets take a step back and look at this interface between policy and science. How are scientific results being conveyed to the public and our government, and what actions are being taken to move forward?

Improving science communication: 
Increasingly, as researchers, we need to relate our work to the broader picture. This goes beyond justification for funding but is needed for effectively guiding the necessary changes in management and policy options. Often, we seem satisfied to add one or two paragraphs at the end of our manuscript or proposals suggesting the broader impacts of our work and letting policy makers know “the actions to take”. But, this is not enough. We need to be creative and thoughtful in the way we communicate our results, to strategize the way information is communicated. Science communication dialogue needs a makeover; we need to begin collaborating with the management and policy sectors in project conceptions and in presenting results. We need to present a message to the public that is coherent and relatable. Why shouldn’t climate change awareness have it’s own super PAC or a national advertising campaign?

Is this the best we can do?
In September I attended a lecture given by Dr. William Colglazier, the Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary of State (part of a series of lectures organized by the University of Denver Debate Fest). Dr. Colglazier is responsible for conveying important scientific and technological (S & T) issues back to the US government. Dr. Colglazier discussed the importance of science for diplomacy and improving relationships between the US and other countries, and briefly covered the five focus issues of the State Department: Energy, Environment, Health, Poverty and Security. These are all logical topics, all important for the sustainability of our globe. Yet something was missing- an action plan. This was especially true of climate change policy, which was only mentioned when prompted during questions.

How can the United States truly be the global leader in S & T, while continuing to ignore or remain silent on climate change? Sadly I was not surprised by the stance presented by Dr. Colglazier. As I mentioned in my Rio+20 post, top down approaches to tackling global environmental issues are seemingly obsolete – much action now is being taken by grassroots efforts. Dr. Colglazier represents one of the many interfaces between science and our government, and to me the message seemed clear and consistent – the US government has not yet made climate change policy a priority.

DebateFest at the University of Denver

The results from Rio+20 further highlight that the rest of the world is also not moving forward in climate change policy, or at least not moving fast enough. Is this not the perfect opportunity and time for the United States to act as a leader?

Too little, too late?
As Mike SanClements discussed on Tuesday, we need to act now. Dr. Tom Lovejoy drove this point home in a lecture at Colorado State University last month entitled, “Can we manage the plantet?” A seasoned scientist who has been at the forefront of science policy for the last two decades, Dr. Lovejoy recognizes the importance of conveying a clear message to management and policy sectors. He stressed how important it is to convey the significance of the 2°C increase mark. Bill McKibben, presents a compelling and rather terrifying view of how close we are to that mark in a recent article in Rolling Stone article, which really cannot be over referenced: everyone should read THIS. McKibben highlights the looming catastrophe of global warming that can be explained by the 2 degree rise in temperature, the amount of carbon we can still put into the atmosphere to stay below this line (565 gigatons), and the amount of carbon we are ready to burn (spoiler alert, it is greater than the allotted 565 gigaton, much greater!).

Dr. Tom Lovejoy at Colorado State University discussing the importance of conveying our scientific message to the public and governing bodies. Photo credit: Kelly Ramirez, 2012.

I would like to think it is not too late to act. I hope that the Obama administration is able to act on climate change and science policy. As young career scientists, we must lead the effort in improving science communication to ensure the information is accessible and compelling to the public and to guide the necessary changes for global sustainability.


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  1. Pingback: Politics aside… | KellySRamirez

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