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November 28, 2014

Study Will Not Avert the Crisis


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One of our most dangerous self-deceptions these days is the belief that simply studying the impacts of climate change will somehow avert the crisis. It won’t. Studying climate change will not keep one carbon atom out of the global atmosphere. We already know enough about the disastrous impacts of climate change to know that we need to take bold, urgent action to solve it, and we know exactly what steps to take. Yet many in government, industry, and academia continue to insist that more study is needed before we take difficult steps to solve the crisis.

Scientific uncertainty is repeatedly invoked as an excuse to delay political action, particularly when such action threatens powerful interest groups. Tobacco was a tragic example. And on climate change, this is a catastrophic mistake. We know we are losing the climate battle, and we are running out of time to fix it.

Al Gore wrote that “science in lieu of action is unconscionable.” Indeed, this seems to be the state of climate science in today’s politics. Studying the effects of climate change has become a multi-billion dollar a year enterprise, producing an endless litany of scientific papers, books, conferences, symposia, lectures, television specials, university programs, private-public partnerships, and so on. This may appeal to our psychological need to feel engaged in the crisis, but it does nothing to avert it. Carbon emissions continue to climb.

Future historians will undoubtedly reflect on the peculiar climate politics of our time, where the cause, effects, and solutions to climate change were well understood, but political paralysis delayed the obvious and only solution: reducing carbon emissions. Along with other explanations for this tragic disconnect — consumerism, denial, ignorance, super PACs, the fossil fuel lobby, etc. — historians may well note the role that science and academia played in prolonging the crisis.

To be sure, science is one of the more exquisite intellectual endeavors ever created. Much of what we consider today to epitomize human civilization derives from science. Yet at its core, science is simply methodical observation — nothing more, nothing less. And observation is not action. Certainly, observation (science) should inform action (policy), but we need to be clear that knowing and doing are two different things.

At best, studying the impacts of climate change simply confirms what we already know: climate change is disastrous, it will become more severe, and it will seriously damage the global environment, economy, and society. And beyond science, this is also what we see before our own eyes — more frequent and more intense storms, flooding, sea level rise, record heat waves, drought, loss of sea ice and glaciers, crop failure, water shortages, wildfires, coral bleaching, climate refugees, etc. In recent years, U.S. politicians have watched the melting Arctic, Hurricanes Katrina, Irene, and Sandy, and record heat and drought, and yet they’ve remained transfixed like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming truck.

We already know precisely what action is needed to avert this disaster: urgent and substantial reductions in carbon emissions. We need to decarbonize the global economy, improve energy efficiency, eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, tax carbon, subsidize low-carbon energy alternatives, halt deforestation, restore forests, enhance low-carbon agriculture, and stabilize population and consumption.

But something strange happened on the way to resolving the climate crisis — studying it became politically easier than solving it. Supporting climate impact science has become a popular pretense with which politicians, universities, companies, and government agencies inhabit the problem in order to appear responsive, while doing nothing whatsoever to actually solve it. It is a way to look busy without actually fixing the problem. Those who remain unconvinced of climate change effects today, given the overwhelming scientific consensus, are unlikely to be persuaded by more science. Except for science on climate adaptation and to reduce the carbon-intensity of our energy system, the most useful science to do at this point is political science and psychology to better understand and manage the political dimensions of the crisis.

Climate impact science is a bit like science on the impacts of oil spills. In Alaska’s 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, we knew after one week that the impact of the spill was huge and unacceptable. From a policy standpoint, we knew immediately that we needed to do everything possible to prevent another such tragedy. Yet over the next 20 years, government agencies spent hundreds of millions of dollars further detailing the environmental damage and confirming that the spill was indeed devastating, while doing little to assist in the recovery of the injured ecosystem, or to address the underlying cause of the disaster — our continued dependence on oil. As with climate change, these large investments in oil spill science give the public the impression that the environmental damage is somehow being attended to. It isn’t.

And while universities should be leading the way in preventing such environmental damage, many seem content simply observing it. After all, this is big money. A good example is the University of Alaska (where I was a marine conservation professor for three decades), which gets much of its funding directly or indirectly from oil. The university dutifully obeys its patriarchal benefactor and avoids doing anything that might alienate Alaska’s powerful oil industry. The well-oiled University of Alaska, along with so many other universities and agencies, now spends millions of dollars of government and industry money simply studying and discussing the impacts of climate change, while doing little to address the root cause — our hydrocarbon addiction.

Again, this large investment in science projects the illusion that the climate crisis is being adequately addressed. It isn’t. It is a strategic distraction, just as the oil industry wants. The University of Alaska, like others co-opted by the fossil fuel industry, seems more than willing to let the carbon-intensive economy continue unchallenged as long as the oil money continues to flow its way. Such behavior actually delays society’s transition to sustainability. (In protest of the university’s pro-oil, anti-environment culture, I resigned in 2010). In contrast, other colleges, like Unity College in Maine, are serious about standing up against climate change, even joining the movement to divest all financial interests in fossil fuel industries.

The billions of dollars devoted to documenting the impacts of the climate disaster will not help with the one and only thing that really matters — reducing the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere. Science has done its job here, and now its time for policymakers to step up and apply what the science tells us. We need to solve this problem, not simply watch it.

We can only hope that in their new term, the Obama administration and Congress will boldly address the critical climate and energy challenge we now face, and appropriate more money and effort to actually solving the crisis than continuing to just study it.

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5 Responses to “Study Will Not Avert the Crisis”
  1. Thanks for pointing this out. Yes it will take much more than a “study” or a “report”. It will take action. However,commissioning reports on topics already decided has long been a standard propaganda practice of BOTH parties. It is the Congressional way of making it appear as if they are doing something to address the issue, when in fact they are not. As long as the politicians do not actually have to take a stand on a topic then they don’t have to worry about making a voter in their state or district angry and thus losing that vote.

    Frankly when it comes to overcoming the fossil fuel industry, I think we are going to have to do that one voter at at time by installing solar panels on our homes and helping other Americans to do the same. We are going to have to do this ourselves. We are going to have to stop buying SUVs. We are going to have to start attending our local government council meetings and speaking up at a local level. We are going to have to begin to undo the damage that groups like the Chamber of Commerce have done at a local level.

  2. Zyxomma says:

    I do everything I can to walk my talk. I live on the top floor of a walk-up. All the radiators in my apartment are turned OFF, because the ambient heat from the building travels up. I have a tiny ceramic heater for the coldest days, but rarely turn it on. I walk everywhere I can–shopping, library, you name it. When I don’t walk, I use public transportation. I do not drive, or own a car. I buy my electricity from a wind company (ESCO) that installs new windmills with its profits. I’m vegan, and buy as much as my food as possible from local farmers. Most of my clothes are vintage, those that aren’t are manufactured sustainably. I recycle and compost (there’s a community garden across the street, and another down the block). I have canvas and recycled bags for my groceries; I don’t accept plastic bags from stores. And I never had children.

    Sandy was kind to me, compared to my fellow New Yorkers. We had no power for five days, but we had running (cold) water, and gas to cook with. I got a few bags of ice, split one between fridge and freezer, and kept the other in a cooler. Very little food spoiled (and that I composted). I still don’t have a landline phone, and won’t until the first week of December. Being the well-prepared former Scout that I am, I had at the ready a solar/wind-up radio, a couple of wind-up LED flashlights, and candles. NPR did great storm coverage, and helped keep me informed and sane. When the radio conked out, I was able to get batteries for my old one. I know people who have lost everything they owned. This is the second serious hurricane I’ve faced (I was in central PA in 1972 for Agnes). I’m sure it won’t be the last.

    Apart from taking action on carbon, we need to face up to our engineering challenges. We’re having a hundred-year storm every year or two, and here in the city, we have to figure out how to keep the lights on, and keep storm surge out of our buildings. NYC is packed with engineering talent, and we have to enlist their expertise. Human populations are concentrated on coastlines and floodplains, and water is powerful.

    Thank you, Rick, for keeping our awareness on the problem. Let’s start to solve it. Now, not later.

  3. Krubozumo Nyankoye says:

    I could criticize this post while mostly agreeing with it. There are a number of assertions that merit some scrutiny. But instead I waited and I see now only two comments..

    Have none of you any thoughts on these momentous issues?

    Just to afford a contrast to atta boy stuff which does no real good, nor has any effect, here’s a slightly contrarian view point to the crux of Mr. Steiner’s argument. No, the first priority we have is to figure out how to get the excess carbon that is already in the atmosphere out. I think it could be plausibly argued that we need to do both at once, that is reduce carbon inputs and increase carbon sequestration. But two things are clear. There is already too much carbon in the atmosphere, we think. If we stopped adding any carbon at all tomorrow the changes we are seeing would continue. The only means at our disposal to mitigate those changes is to extract carbon from the atmosphere. Hopefully that will disrupt the feedback loop.

  4. Alaska Pi says:

    Thank you Mr Steiner.
    I get pretty bummed watching this all unfold.
    I keep seeing a bottom line kind of dealie where far too many people are dragging their heels about changing the way we do things on a number of fronts- presumably because it would shift large sectors of influence and power for awhile as things shook out.
    Bunch of chicken butts.

  5. thatcrowwoman says:

    Hear! Hear!! Rick.
    Granddaddy, of blessed memory, would say,
    “No farmer ever plowed a field by turning it over in his mind.”

    Meanwhile, here on the Gulf of Mexico, BP settles their Deepwater Horizon disaster claims for $4.5 billion, which is less than their profit from the third quarter this year. Eleven lives lost in the explosion, countless families in pain, and our beautiful Gulf Coast so horribly polluted…that’s a legacy that will endure for generations. Corporate Personhood, that’s a legacy we need to end, and soon.

    Thank you, Rick, for your efforts on behalf of the Gulf of Mexico and of our whole planet.
    I’m thinking that the next 4 years will see lots of science into action,
    and ethics into action, also, too.
    I sure hope so.

    thatcrowwoman

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