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Congress Needs an Adult Conversation About Climate

03/11/2011 10:10 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Watching the debate over climate science in Congress these days is like watching butchers, bakers and candlestick makers debate brain surgery. At the moment, no other conversation in American politics is so filled with willful misconceptions or is so large a waste of time.

During a hearing this week on whether EPA should be stripped of its power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee brought along stacks of scientific studies and a string of climate scientists. The result, as reported by the New York Times:

Despite some fireworks, the handful of members from both parties who attended the hearing left with the views they arrived with.

In other words, the climate debate in Congress is not really a debate. When it's not about raw politics, it's a standoff of rigid ideologies and beliefs. That's part of the problem. Climate science is not about beliefs or philosophies of government; it's about facts.

But facts aren't driving the climate conversation on Capitol Hill. Some Members can't accept climate change because they can't handle the truth; some think whatever happens is ordained by God; some are principally concerned about keeping campaign cash flowing from the oil, coal and gas industries; and some are committed to preventing progressives from succeeding at anything before the 2012 election. Neither scientists nor science are likely to sway these Members, particularly when paid witnesses and fringe research are available to challenge what the overwhelming majority of climate experts has found.

For these reasons, Congress should stop debating climate science. Climate science is the right conversation for scientists, but the wrong conversation for Congress. The right dialogue for lawmakers is about managing climate risk. What should concern policy makers is the possibility the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the U.S. Global Change Research Program are correct. If climate disruption is possible, then Congress's job is to protect us against that risk by assessing it, attempting to mitigate it, and helping us all prepare for the worst case.

Uncertainty is not an excuse for inaction. As Climate Progress reports, Sandia National Laboratory assessed the risk of precipitation patterns affected by climate change, and concluded:

...compelling risk derives from uncertainty, not certainty. The greater the uncertainty, the greater the risk. It is the uncertainty associated with climate change that validates the need to act protectively and proactively.

The same point is made in "Degrees of Risk", a report issued last month by Third Generation Environmentalism:

In managing conventional security risks both policy makers and the general public accept that uncertainty is no excuse for inaction. Indeed it is hard to imagine a politician trying to argue that counter-terrorism measures were unnecessary because the threat of attack was uncertain.

In a working paper circulated through the environmental community this week, Andrew J. Hoffman of the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business argues that the two poles in the climate debate - the "skeptics" and the "convinced" - already think about risk, but from entirely different perspectives. As a result, the two camps are talking past each other. Hoffman based these conclusions in part on an extensive review of articles on the different perspectives at play in the climate debate. He writes:

Where convinced articles emphasize the physical, social, and health risks from climate change, skeptical articles focus on the risks to quality of life if climate change is addressed and the positive externalities that will occur due to climate change (e.g. longer growing seasons). Risk is built on two completely contrasting assessments of the threat at hand, one coming from inaction and the other from action.

The question is, which type of risk should motivate policy makers -- the risk of doing something or the risk of doing nothing? The responsible choice is to plan for climate disruption rather than placing our bets on business as usual. Business as usual doesn't exist. Whether we all collaborate to build a new clean-energy economy or we allow greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts to continue growing, we are entering a different world.

Like some members of Congress, the American people may have trouble understanding the nuances of climate science, but they certainly understand insuring ourselves against risk. Most of us do it in other areas of our lives. Reducing risk is why mortgage lenders require borrowers to buy hazard insurance. It's why drivers buy collision insurance. It's why homeowners insure themselves against fire, theft and liability lawsuits. It's why families who can afford it buy health insurance to protect themselves from catastrophic illness and injury. In each case, we protect ourselves not against the inevitable or the likely, but against the possible.

A few similes might further illustrate this point in non-scientific terms:

  • Permitting unabated greenhouse gas emissions is like keeping our foot on the accelerator and our hands off the steering wheel. All of us are along for the ride, and we're all in jeopardy.
  • Ignoring the analyses of most of the world's leading climate scientists is, to borrow from Al Gore, like hearing 9 of 10 cancer doctors tell us our child has cancer but since the diagnosis wasn't unanimous, deciding against treatment.
  • Cutting federal investments in climate research, mitigation and adaptation - spending cuts House Republicans have proposed -- is like disbanding the military because we believe there will be no more wars.

The risks of unmitigated climate change have been well documented: natural disasters, drought, instability in volatile regions of the world, millions of climate refugees and so on. But climate skeptics in Congress are ignoring those warnings, as well as the risks to national security -- an area that even most conservatives admit is a responsibility of the federal government.

Military and intelligence experts have been making the case for the several years that climate change will multiply threats to our security. A fresh example was detailed this week in a study prepared for the U.S. Navy by the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy warned the United States is unprepared to defend its interests in the Arctic, where melting summer sea ice may result in international competition over newly accessible oil and gas reserves.

In addition, the report estimated that $100 billion in Navy installations are at risk from rising sea levels, another effect of climate change.

"Even the most moderate current trends in climate, if continued, will present new national security challenges for the U.S. Navy, Marine Corp and Coastguard," the report concludes. "While the timing, degree and consequences of future climate change impacts remain uncertain, many changes are already underway in regions around the world."

Indeed, as Hoffman notes, national security should be the common ground on which all sides meet for an adult conversation about dealing with the uncertainties ahead. He writes:

(I)t was surprising to find that national security arguments were not invoked more often by convinced authors. One might have thought that national security would be another possible issue category that the convinced would use to persuade the undecided and skeptical that climate is a problem worth addressing.

Perhaps we can forgive those members of Congress who confuse belief with facts; deny the growing body of observed evidence that climate change is underway; ignore the warnings of our military and intelligence experts; fail to distinguish good science from bad; let ideology interfere with good judgment; and put politics ahead of prudence. Perhaps.

But we should be far less forgiving if Congress fails to protect us from the risk that climate change is not only real, but also a looming global catastrophe. We don't know for sure how quickly climate disruption will escalate or precisely how bad it will be. But those uncertainties are all the more reason for Congress to pass the laws and preserve the powers for the federal government to help protect us from the most severe consequences of climate change.