Two Parties, One Approach to Climate Science

by Peter C. Frumhoff and  Kerry Emanuel

When it comes to foreign policy, the saying goes that politics stops at the water’s edge.When it comes to climate science, we say that politics should stop at the atmosphere’s edge.

Time For Bi-Partisan Leadership

One of us is a Republican, the other a Democrat. We hold different views on many issues. But as scientists, we share a deep conviction that leaders of both parties must speak to the reality and risks of human-caused climate change, and commit themselves to finding bipartisan solutions.

Scientists have known for more than 100 years that carbon dioxide in our atmosphere traps heat. And today we know that the excess carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere from human activity — primarily, burning coal and oil and clearing forests — is altering our climate.

It’s a conclusion based on established physics and on evidence gathered from satellite data, ancient ice cores, temperature stations, fossilized trees and corals. And it’s a conclusion affirmed by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, established by President Lincoln to advise our nation’s leaders on matters of science.

But as scientific understanding of climate change has advanced, the public discourse has split along partisan lines.

Head in the Sand Tactics Abundant

Republicans who identify with the Tea Party are particularly likely to deny the reality of global warming. Several of this year’s aspiring presidential candidates are rejecting the findings of climate science — and feeling the political heat if they don’t.

After former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney reiterated his understanding that human activity is warming the planet, Rush Limbaugh denounced him for doing so, saying, “bye-bye nomination.” Romney now says that he doesn’t know what is causing climate change.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently accused climate scientists of “manipulating data.” In Wednesday’s Republican candidate debate, he made an argument like the one tobacco industry executives used to cast doubt on the scientific evidence of smoking’s health risks, saying, “The idea that we would put Americans’ economy in jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet to me is just nonsense.” Science is never truly settled and no responsible leader would wait for 100% certainty to respond to a serious threat.

Making misleading statements about science and picking on scientists is easy. Most would rather defend their findings in peer-reviewed journals than on cable TV. A lie can travel halfway around the world before we even get our lab coats on.

Some politicians, fortunately, are demonstrating a more responsible way to talk about climate change.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, for example, reaffirmed his acceptance of the science in Wednesday’s presidential debate. And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has also been speaking up for climate science, even as he has backed away from taking action.

Defer to Expert Science Over Suspect Politicians

“When you have over 90 percent of the world’s scientists who have studied this stating that climate change is occurring and humans play a contributing role, it’s time to defer to the experts,” Christie said last month.

The right rebuked Christie for recognizing the reality of climate change. And the left lambasted him for using the same speech to pull out of a regional pact to curb emissions.

We question Christie’s policy decision. But we commend him for acknowledging the reality of climate change, and for providing New Jersey voters a chance to decide whether they agree with his policy choice. That’s how our democracy should work.

Republicans skeptical about climate policy should follow Christie’s and Huntsman’s lead and realize that they don’t need to misrepresent the science.

And Democrats must speak out as well.

Candidate Barack Obama spoke forcefully about global warming, but has been far too quiet as president. Science tells us that the extent and severity of climate change faced by our children’s generation will be determined by the hard choices we must make today. Political leadership is about ensuring that we adults face up to this task.

We cannot afford to have those leading our nation misrepresent, or be silent about, the reality and risks of climate change. Φ

Peter C. Frumhoff is the director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Kerry Emanuel is the Cecil and Ida Green professor of atmospheric science in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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