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White House science office to hold first event on countering climate change denial and delay

Leading climate scientists will meet with officials in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The White House on Jan. 28. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy will hold a first-of-its-kind roundtable with some of the nation’s leading scientists on Thursday to discuss the urgent need to combat the climate crisis and to counter arguments for delaying climate action.

The event, which has not previously been reported, will bring together a diverse group of 17 climate scientists, social scientists, engineers and economists from 11 states and the District of Columbia. Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist who serves as OSTP deputy director for climate and environment and who ran the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration during President Barack Obama’s first term, will lead the discussion.

“Clearly, we see tangible evidence of climate change all around us with sea-level rise, increases in extreme heat, increases in drought, wildfires, ocean acidification [and] floods,” Lubchenco said in a phone interview.

“What we’re seeing now is a result of past inaction,” she said. “That past inaction is haunting us. And so the question is, how do we accelerate effective action?”

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President Biden took office promising to take a whole-of-government approach to curbing the greenhouse gas emissions that are dangerously warming the Earth. But the event is being held as Biden’s massive climate and social spending plan, known as the Build Back Better bill, remains stalled on Capitol Hill.

However, Lubchenco said the discussion would not dwell on the uncertain fate of the spending package, which would be the largest climate and clean energy investment in the nation’s history.

“We don’t plan to focus on specific legislation at this event,” she said. “What we are doing is seeking guidance and knowledge from experts about why there is hesitancy to move ahead with effective action to reduce carbon emissions, to reduce greenhouse gases. And that’s a broader topic than any specific piece of legislation.”

Those visiting the White House on Thursday include Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University who is known for creating a “hockey stick” graph of rising global temperatures, and Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University whose 2010 book “Merchants of Doubt” explored how a handful of high-level scientists denied the dangers of tobacco smoke and global warming.

Oreskes said she plans to tell White House officials that people who dispute the need to address global warming are, in effect, rejecting the reality of the climate crisis.

“To deny the urgency is to deny the science,” she said. “We have so much evidence now that serious extreme weather events like wildfires and floods and hurricanes have become substantially worsened by climate change. And it’s hurting people right here and right now.”

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Shahzeen Attari, an associate professor at Indiana University Bloomington who studies how and why people make decisions about climate change, plans to highlight her research on the issue’s ideological divides. For instance, she found in a 2020 study that both conservatives and liberals support shifting away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy but disagree on policies to achieve this transition.

“With today's political polarization, we have found ourselves in this place where it's always party over policy,” Attari said. “How do we break that stronghold by finding common ground, especially when it comes to climate change?”

Other attendees Thursday include Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University and the chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy who has sought to engage evangelical Christians in climate discussions; Gernot Wagner, a noted climate economist at New York University; and Marshall Shepherd, a leading international expert in weather and climate at the University of Georgia.

Established in 1976, OSTP is responsible for overseeing the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates climate research across 13 federal agencies. Every four years, this program produces the federal government’s most definitive and comprehensive report on climate science, known as the National Climate Assessment. The fifth such report is expected next year.

OSTP was rocked by scandal on Feb. 7 when Eric Lander, Biden’s top science adviser, resigned as director after an internal review found that he bullied and demeaned staffers. Lander apologized for mistreating subordinates in a note to staff, and Biden on Feb. 17 tapped social scientist Alondra Nelson to be acting director of the office.

Lubchenco, who joined the office last year, plans to kick off the discussion Thursday by noting that in 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which established a landmark international treaty on global warming.

“In the 30 years since then, despite the fact that there was a Republican president signing this international treaty at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, we have seen a constant drumbeat of denial, delay [and] distraction,” she plans to say.

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After the climate summit in Rio, a consortium of business interests including oil and gas producers, utility companies and automakers formed the Global Climate Coalition, which opposed limits on greenhouse gas emissions and challenged the science behind global warming. The coalition successfully lobbied to prevent the United States from ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate treaty adopted in Japan in 1997.

Asked whether she expected to discuss efforts to block climate action by fossil fuel companies and other polluting industries, Lubchenco demurred. But Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a vocal climate advocate who worked with the White House to organize the event, said the gathering would shed light on those efforts.

“I’m excited for this event to happen because it will be the first time that the White House has recognized scientists who study the climate denial operation run by the fossil fuel industry,” Whitehouse said. “And that’s important, because we’ll do a better job fighting climate change if we are addressing the fossil fuel-funded obstruction apparatus.”

Ultimately unclear is what the event can and will accomplish. But Oreskes said the discussion could raise public awareness of climate disinformation and delay tactics, especially for Americans who would otherwise tune these scientists out in their daily lives.

“We live in an incredibly distracting world, so I don’t blame people for not being aware of these issues,” Oreskes said. “But I think it’s really, really helpful when an organization like the OSTP says, ‘Hold on, there’s something important that people need to know about.’ ”

The event is taking place amid a reckoning over the spread of climate disinformation on social media platforms. While Facebook pledged last year to attach “informational labels” to posts about climate change in the United States and other countries, the platform has labeled only about half of posts promoting climate denial, according to a report released Wednesday by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a watchdog group.

Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, who testified before Congress in October, also has filed a pair of whistleblower complaints alleging that the company lacked a clear policy on climate disinformation as recently as last year, despite Facebook executives’ promising during earnings calls with investors that the company would fight the “global crisis.”

“My focus is going to be squarely on climate and how to counter the arguments that are delaying action,” Lubchenco said. “Some of that is a result of disinformation. Not all of it.”

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