A deep sigh of relief…

Jane-LubchencoElizabeth Kolbert recently interviewed Jane Lubchenco  (pictured), appointed by President Obama as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Kolbert comments that when Lubchenco was appointed the reaction among climate scientists was an almost audible sigh of relief. During the Bush administration the work of NOAA staff was frequently ignored or even suppressed, and Lubchenco’s appointment was seen as a sign of the new administration’s resolve to finally take NOAA’s work seriously.

Kolbert’s first question concerned the US climate impacts report that came out a few weeks ago which Hot Topic covered here. She asked Lubchenco what message she hoped people would take from the report. Her reply:

“I think the take-away message is that the evidence is in: Climate change is real, it’s causing changes in our own backyard, many of those changes are increasingly challenging to society, and therefore there is urgency in moving ahead with reducing heat-trapping pollution as soon as possible.”

Kolbert noted that nevertheless during the debate on the Waxman-Markey Bill there were some congresspeople calling global warming a hoax. So there still seems to be a communications gap.

Lubchenco replied that the report is helpful in providing credible information, solidly-grounded in good measurements, and that it corresponds with what many people are experiencing, as well.  Her sense of the US is that there is a movement towards increasing recognition of the reality of climate change, and the fact that it is affecting the things that people care about.  What also needs to be communicated is that something can be done about it, and that both individuals and governments should be making that clear.

On communication of science she comments:

“Being in this job has only reinforced the importance of communicating scientific information in a way that is understandable and relevant to the decisions being made, with concrete examples, and in as unequivocal a fashion as possible, while still remaining true to the nuances that are important. And I think all too many scientists assume that everybody knows what they know, and especially members of Congress, and members of the administration.”

She adds that more scientists need to become bilingual – able to speak the language of science but also able to speak the language of lay people when talking to non-scientists.  Not always easy to do, she acknowledges, but very important.

Whether better communication would have any effect on the views of some members of the US Congress who, like our own Rodney Hide, actually use the word hoax may be doubted, but generally speaking the principle is of great importance.  As the scientists whom Obama has brought into his administration continue their already notable efforts to interpret the science of climate change to the public at large it will surely become much more difficult for malevolent forces of denial to prevent the actions so urgently needed.

In the course of the interview Lubchenco commented on what the President’s commitment to science means to scientists:

“This is definitely a new era. I think the president set the tone in announcing his science team so very early on in the series of appointments. The president made it clear that he thought that good government depends on good science, and it was his intent to restore science to its rightful place. NOAA is a stellar science agency, and there are superb, outstanding scientists here who are delighted to be valued and supported, and eagerly awaiting the new policies that the administration is in the process of prepping to ensure that the integrity of science is protected. I think that there is wide enthusiasm for policies that will really provide good guidance and ensure that science is not constrained, is not politicized.” 

Incidentally in the same interview but on another theme Lubchenco, a marine ecologist, has some interesting things to say about ocean acidification, which she describes as “the equally evil  twin” to global warming. Kolbert asked her why what is happening to the oceans doesn’t seem to be penetrating popular consciousness.  She replied that oceans for many people are still out of sight, out of mind, and there is a lack of appreciation of how important the ocean is in the whole climate system, and what the real risk is. The need is pressing to significantly ramp up research monitoring and research programs on ocean acidification.     We may perhaps hope to see this crucial matter figuring more openly in US policy discussions.

3 thoughts on “A deep sigh of relief…”

  1. Over at the EPA, the pH criterion process relating to ocean acidification is already underway. In theory this would allow regulating CO2 sources under the Clean Water Act even if Congress takes away the ability to do so under the Clean Air Act (as part of Waxman-Markey).

  2. Far too many vested interests and dummies in politics as we all know. I don’t have any faith in politicians doing what is necessary.If the populace simply sticks to normal modes of dissent then we are all doomed. Great though the work of people here and other organizations such as Greenpeace may be, they’re not enough. The government will simply say “We consulted the public, we followed due process, but it’s too expensive to implement”. I don’t know how, but their needs to some sort of co-ordinated, collective effort worldwide, and quick-smart too. Only disruption and dissent on a truly massive scale will get these politicians to extract their heads from their backsides.

    Sadly, most people don’t even understand what climate change is, let alone the consequences. To the average Joe and Josephine they read news articles about melting glaciers and Arctic, which has no immediate impact on their daily routine. Hear things like “sea level rise of 1 metre by 2100” and think “so what?”. Quite a few people have dropped the ball on communicating this issue. If most understood what was at stake, well the mobilization of people would be breathtaking I suspect.

    A lot of these politicians are geriatrics, and won’t be around to suffer the consequences, but the plausible probability of living in some post apocalyptic world, or like some peasant farmer from centuries past, scares the heck out of me. I haven’t even got my own personal rocket pack yet!.

  3. Dappledwater, I’m a geriatric too but I assure you the fact I won’t be round to see the consequences doesn’t lessen my fears concerning what climate change is going to mean, and for some is already starting to mean. I agree that most people still don’t understand what is at stake. The organised forces of denial bear a heavy responsibility for this, and they are aided by the lack of courageous political leadership. Leaders who will say the science is for real and the imperative to address it is overwhelming and who will be quite prepared to risk their political future over the issue. Sometimes it looks as if Obama might be such a one, but that’s not certain yet and may prove wishful thinking on my part. More scientists stepping into the public arena to articulate their concern would also help. One hopes for a tipping-point in public opinion, where suddenly there is no more readiness to dilly-dally but a common sense of the urgent necessity of action. Such shifts can happen and it’s at least worth trying for.

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