June 19, 2003

Bush Climate Science

Andrew Revkin and Katherine Seelye had a disturbing piece in the Times today. In that article they report that the editing of an upcoming EPA report on the state of our environment has been heavily influenced by the White House. A major section on the likely impacts of climate change has been essentially removed. Ironically, among the bits that have been chopped out are references to a National Research Committee report that the Bush Administration itself commissioned.

Rather than a "summary statement about the potential impact of changes on human health and the environment", the report's section on Global Issues begins with a statement about how complex and tricky the issues are. While the statement is true, it distracts from the issue that we have no choice but to deal as best we can with that complexity. The failure to address the global environment and in particular the climate is explained by Bush appointees as avoiding a rush to judgment. When this is challenged they respond by saying essentially "please be patient, our comprehensive plan for addressing global climate change will be ready soon."

A little more than a year ago, Bush presented his new way of thinking about greenhouse gas emissions by introducing the concept of greenhouse gas intensity. While clever many authors have shown the slight of hand of this rhetoric, my own contributions are a short white paper and a video.

Yesterday I lectured my environmental policy class on Kingdon's notions of governmental and decision agendas. We talked about whether the environment is on the Bush agenda and I argued that it is rhetorically present, but not really occupying any one's time. Now I am not so sure. It seems to me that it is occupying time but in the negative sense; the Bush administration seems to be actively avoiding taking action.

There are a host of simple observations that even many of the skeptics can agree on that indicate that our planet's physical and biological systems are not functioning as that once did (e.g. my post of a few days ago on the Vostok core, or any host of observations about the distribution of mountain glaciers or plant life). Yet in a frightening petard hoisting, inevitable scientific uncertainty is being used to avoid addressing changes in the Earth system a responsible way.

We have become distracted in our quest to determine whether or not or how much of a change in a system is due to human activity as opposed to natural variability. In many ways it does not matter. We are vulnerable to changes in the climate independent of any assessment of blame. While it is true that changes in our fossil fuel consuming habits will take many decades to manifest themselves as mitigative forces in the climate system, there are other kinds of activities we could be undertaking that will have shorter term benefits.

What really frighten's me about political staff becoming involved in the editing of scientific documents is not the cynicism but the hubris. I hated Greek tragedy when I was forced to read it, but the pattern was always there.