The Washington Post

The climate change science cop-out

If you’re asked about climate change science, duck and cover. That’s the spineless strategy of politicians and governments without the courage to discuss or encourage dialog on this important, timely issue.

Politico reports some Republicans have recently evaded questions about climate change science with responses such as  “I am not a scientist” or “we are not experts”.

On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner said he’s “not qualified to debate the science over climate change” when asked if he thought it was a problem.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government has directed its weather forecasters not to talk about climate change according to environmental journalist Mike De Souza. Apparently, Environment Canada doesn’t think its own meteorologists are equipped to talk about climate change, De Souza reports:

The department defended its policy by suggesting that Environment Canada meteorologists – among the most widely-quoted group of government experts in media reports and broadcasts – weren’t qualified to answer questions about climate change.

“Environment Canada scientists speak to their area of expertise,” said spokesman Mark Johnson in an email. “For example, our Weather Preparedness Meteorologists are experts in their field of severe weather and speak to this subject. Questions about climate change or long-term trends would be directed to a climatologist or other applicable authority.”

In reality, any reasonably informed person is “qualified” to talk about climate change science.

Credibly talking about climate change science doesn’t require a Ph.D. in climate science or the publication of academic research papers.  It simply requires  a basic understanding of the evidence for climate change and the prevailing view of experts about its causes, starting with:

* Atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping greenhouse gases are at their highest level in at least 800,000 years, due to human activities (mainly the burning of fossil fuels) since the Industrial Revolution.
* The Earth’s average temperature has risen about 1 degree C since the late 1800s; scores of other independent environmental indicators present indisputable evidence of a warming world

* The prevailing view of publishing climate scientists is that most of the warming in recent decades is due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations
* Additional warming is projected as greenhouse gas concentrations increase; the faster it warms, the greater the risk of unwelcome effects

For meteorologists, as climate change and weather are inseparable, lacking this knowledge is simply unprofessional.

For politicians, since climate change science has potentially profound implications for energy policy – not to mention the state of the environment, attaining this knowledge is an obligation.

An absence of information certainly can’t be an excuse for ignorance or avoidance. Countless resources are available to politicians and meteorologists to get up to speed on climate change science.  If Environment Canada is concerned its meteorologists may misspeak on climate change, it should simply require they take a short course on the subject.

A lack of time might be a more legitimate excuse for busy politicians but that could be overcome in a series of short briefings.

Some politicians’ reluctance to discuss the science of climate change no doubt reflects the fear that discussing what’s happening will corner them into a policy position.  But even accepting and conveying the consensus view that the Earth is warming largely due to human activities doesn’t prescribe a particular response.   Whereas the basics of the science of climate change are fairly straight forward, how to best respond to climate change involves wickedly complex judgments involving economics, technology, ethics,  policy, and politics. Hence, there are all kinds of response options that can satisfy a particular politician’s politics/ideology.

Given the high profile of the climate change issue and the availability of information, avoiding or deflecting questions about the science is unsustainable and totally unnecessary.  Even, if for whatever reason,  a politician/government is skeptical about the mainstream view about climate change,  at least be transparent and offer an explanation. Dodging the issue is deeply disingenuous.

Jason is the Washington Post’s weather editor and Capital Weather Gang's chief meteorologist. He earned a master's degree in atmospheric science, and spent 10 years as a climate change science analyst for the U.S. government. He holds the Digital Seal of Approval from the National Weather Association.
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