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I attended talk by John Marburger, Presidential Science Advisor, Monday evening at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union on the subject of climate change. I joked with a friend of mine earlier in the day that Marburger's is a thankless job- placed in the position of defending George W. Bush's science policy to such an audience. I suggested the task would have his hair white, but then he's of an age where that would be expected (particularly of scientists), and my friend suggested a better test would measure how much hair was remaining. Coincidentally, Marburger made the same joke at the beginning of his talk, and so began an hour of subtle appeals for the scientific community to be somehow exceptionally understanding and tolerant of the administration's representative. This was not entirely necessary- the audience listened attentively and gave polite applause- yet, judging by the sentiment of those around me and the tone of the Q&A session, my two notes jotted down around the midway point were not uncommon feelings:

Willful ignorance of the role policy assumes in driving public consciousness.
Willful ignorance of the role policy assumes in encouraging or discouraging science.

Marburger presented tacit acceptance of the details of climate change science and focused instead upon the subject of response, pointing out that the human element to the problem of climate change motivates a response that extends from scientific circles into the public and political spheres (and into the cubes of private industry). He turned his attention first and foremost to the media and the extremity and inaccuracy of public discourse. He stated he was "humbled by the power of the media" to drive such sentiment, a comment which prompted my first bold line above. Marburger, and by extension the administration, still fail to acknowledge the role they play and have played in influencing the debate, public sentiment and the level of the climate change debate.

Science has lost credibility in this discussion... is being pressed into awkward service here...

Do not take this quote of his out of context to such an extent as I have shown it here. Marburger suggested that the cacaphony of politicized climate change has been detrimental to public perception of the scientific credibility, and was correct in saying so, except in that he failed to acknowledge that the administration has itself pushed a political perspective, rather than scientific, on the subject of climate change, and that the U.S. Government has been among the most powerful if not the most actor in constructing the political debate.

Having lamented the decline in civil discourse and praised the scientific community for being civil and welcoming in praise and disagreement alike, Marburger proceeded to recite the following points, summarized by isolated quotes.

Mitigation is going to occur too slowly to avoid the exacerbation of negative conditions affecting vulnerable populations...


It disturbs me that the public discourse seems biased against adaptation...


...much, much more attention needs to be given to adaptation

We don't have a bias against adaptation, John, except insofar as it is offered as a substitute for mitigation. Marburger made the case that stopping climate change is already a foregone conclusion, as it is going to take too long to achieve an economic reality that enables the replacement of fossil fuels, and that indeed "we already have warming" - this comment having been delivered with a kind of wry chuckle that had me fuming in my seat.

We are past the time in which, by way of example, water resources management should have been made a major concern in public discourse across the west coast of the U.S.. Accounting for the decline in winter snowpack that causes shortages over the summer. What, specifically, does the administration intend to do about such subjects beyond paying them lip service in lame appeals to the importance of adaptation. Anticipated water shortages were discussed quite prominently, I recall, a few years ago at the AAAS meeting in Seattle. However, Marburger persisted in talking a decade behind his audience.

...very few low-carbon technologies exist that are expandable to the appropriate scale (to replace fossil fuels).


We do not currently have a scalable technology for carbon sequestration and I do not see one coming soon.


...this sounds pretty gloomy.

Resonsible measures in climate policy are not restricted to the ultimate solution. The market you so dearly love adjusts to political circumstances, much as it did within the context of the Montreal Protocol - you must encourage such measures as are available regardless of their immediate scalability. Marburger argued that "mitigation" cannot resolve the problem entirely, and he was correct in doing so, but the problem with his talk here lies in the fatalistic suggestion that alternative energies are inadequate to the problem to the implicit emphasis of adaptation to climate change. Technological innovation has no incentive where the fossil fuel industry and dependence of this country is subsidized by the government.

...we need to do research...

...referring to energy research, but the statement was nevertheless ironic in light of the administration having cut the NASA budget allocated for climate research.

Summarizing the comments, he suggests that we need an international framework of the major players in carbon emissions (implicitly including India and China) to reduce carbon emissions and to adapt to climate change while investigating alternative energies. He did not discourage the adoption of solar, wind and biofuels but I would argue that, by omission he discouraged any practical approach to encouraging these alternatives, and portrayed our policy as being enslaved by the market rather than a determinant of its progress. I wasn't expecting anything different from the talk than what I received, but the result nevertheless came across as fundamentally dishonest- the Bush administration will talk about Climate Change to the extent that it will placate media scrutiny. It will do nothing more, and it will not concede its failure to act in the past.

The Q&A session contained a couple revealing subjects. When confronted specifically with the question of what role the government (as opposed to the media or the scientific community or the public) has to play in addressing climate change:

Bush gave a speech in 2001...


...he should get credit for that...

He did not defend the administration with concrete policy and could not have done so. He defended Bush for calling attention to the problems of climate change... and I cannot imagine how he could possibly feel such a defense could come across as anything but the ultimate condemnation of this presidency on this subject.

Upon being confronted with a question concerning the suppression of the oinion of government scientists, Marburger assured us that he reviews every complaint, and that with instances of overediting "usually there's someone who's exercised poor judgment" or "legitimate efforts to improve the quality of reports." He denied any "organized" effort to suppress climate science...

...yet this protest is an obvious half-truth. When you hire someone with energy industry connections and put them in the position of reviewing scientific content on climate change, you place a systematic, organized constraint on scientific expression. Perhaps the administration has not consciously conspired to suppress inconvenient truths, but it has chosen from its inception to adopt a political philosophy that is at odds with climate science, and to promote that philosophy throughtout "public discourse."

Ray Pierrehumbert has further comments on Marburger and other climate-related material at the AGU meeting up at realclimate.

Originally posted to Kimball on Tue Dec 11, 2007 at 09:34 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  tips... (9+ / 0-)

    Will be around off and on to respond to comments- have some talks to attend in about 40 minutes. I apologize for the short quotes- I was working from some hasty notes and am prone to hand cramps.

  •  It is amazing how these professionals function (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Attorneys speak at attorney meetings, information officers speak with counterparts, educators defend NCLB.

    How do they do this?

    Are they like Dana Perino and don't know much about what they are saying?  Are they just cynical?  Is it tribal (i.e. their party)?  

    This has be be psychological phenomenon beyond cognitive dissonance.

    •  Marburger himself pointed out... (0+ / 0-)

      He hasn't been purely devoted to primary research in 30 years... he's a bit of an administrative animal and being involved in such things even at the academic level is fairly political. This shouldn't mean that its easy to present half-truths and political spin to an audience that can easy recognize it as such, but its a job too many are still willing to do.

  •  Thanks for the heads up (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    It sounds like another disgraceful performance by an Administration lackey. This is almost as bad as the NASA official (Ghassem Asrar) who described how the results from a field mission on atmospheric transport and chemical evolution (INTEX-NA) would help us understand the atmosphere on Mars (!?!?)

    But Marbury did his job -- he went and "talked to the science community", and checked that box off his list. Which is all he's going to do about it.

  •  You got rescued. I miss the fall AGU (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Thanks for the informative briefing. I missed this diary this afternoon but saw the rescue .

    Ray Pierrehumbert is one of the best reads anywhere on  the tubes. He is both brilliant and funny. Thanks for the link.

    Marburger is a chump. The cuts in climate change investigating satellites are horrid.

    "It's the planet, stupid."

    by FishOutofWater on Tue Dec 11, 2007 at 08:38:54 PM PST

    •  Ray... (0+ / 0-)

      and his pals at realclimate are probably the greatest online asset of the climatology blogging community, and it's more than worthwhile too see what he has to say about the actual science being presented at the meeting. I've been mired by passion and by necessity in sessions is a rather distinctly unrelated field.

      Thanks for reading!

  •  Parallels (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    pb, inHI, Kimball

    Your comments about Marburger and his performance lead me to recall a description of another Bush official in this recent Paul Krugman editorial:

    By Bush administration standards, Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary, is a good guy. He isn’t conspicuously incompetent; and he isn’t trying to mislead us into war, justify torture or protect corrupt contractors.

    But Mr. Paulson’s actions reflect the priorities of the administration he serves.

    Sounds like Marburger is cut from the same cloth. As for the policies he's trying to defend, ditto from Krugman's analysis of Paulson's mortgage rescue plan:

    The plan is, as a Times editorial put it yesterday, “too little, too late and too voluntary.” But from the administration’s point of view these failings aren’t bugs, they’re features.

    In fact, there’s a growing consensus among financial observers that the Paulson plan isn’t mainly intended to achieve real results. The point is, instead, to create the appearance of action, thereby undercutting political support for actual attempts to help families in trouble.

    Change the references from financial to climate science in the above quote, and it sounds like a pretty accurate description of the Bush administration strategy for dealing with global warming, as in:

    The plan is, as a Times editorial put it yesterday, “too little, too late and too voluntary.” But from the administration’s point of view these failings aren’t bugs, they’re features.

    In fact, there’s a growing consensus among financial science observers that the Paulson Marburger plan isn’t mainly intended to achieve real results. The point is, instead, to create the appearance of action, thereby undercutting political support for actual attempts to help families in trouble do anything effective about climate change.

    That pretty much sums up the Bush approach to any issue they're on the wrong side of: issue misleading statements designed to convey the opposite image from what they are actually doing.

    That bit on pushing "Adaptation" as deserving more attention is just the Bush administration's way of saying "Lie back and enjoy it."

    "No special skill, no standard attitude, no technology, and no organization - no matter how valuable - can safely replace thought itself."

    by xaxnar on Tue Dec 11, 2007 at 09:00:37 PM PST

    •  well said... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      xaxnar, inHI

      There was a telling point during the speech where Marburger pointed out that he had not drawn from a recent Wall Street Journal editorial despite its similarity in tone, but that he had drawn from a long record of white house documents and policy statements.  I recall some comments back (perhaps in the New Yorker...) when he attained the position of having been a credible scientific figure... but his credibility here really wasn't the issue. He was speaking with the voice of the executive branch - only accentuating the administration's failure to allow itself any sort of self-awareness or frank review. If you're a member of this little White House Club you're not going to be speaking with an individual voice.

  •  Marburger should have had his name changed. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:


    I can't recall the last science advisor to a President that was as ineffective as this one.

    When one looks at the advisor to JFK for instance, and to Carter and to Clinton and who actually listened and valued the input, the comparison is stark and troubling.

    Does Marburger ever talk to Bush? In 7 years?  I seriously doubt it goes beyond a 20 minute meeting. " OK, that's checked off, Next!"

    Meanwhile, biological science, technological innovation, many other areas of promise are getting increasing support in China, Europe and elsewhere.

    Bush has conceded the lead in those fields, too. Only he is too cowardly to tell the scientific and technical community here.  Some weapons systems might get a big increase in funding...or they might not, depending on Democrats' "pork"/earmark distribution in certain districts.

    New Orleans went down, health care system is an expensive disorganized mess getting more difficult to administer,and we now have to "adapt" because climate change is beyond this Admistration's ability or desire to deal with as the crisis it truly is.

     If he had one ounce of integrity and valued his self respect as a professional scientist he would resign. Public and noisy.  7 years of apologetics and running inteference is too much already.

  •  He makes my point (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    which so far has fallen on mostly deaf ears here and elsewhere, but listen up: when Marburger talks about "adaptation" it's a tipoff to the future Republican mantra on the climate crisis, and it is a vulnerable point for Democrats.  I've written about it here and here.

    Because there are two distinct aspects to the Climate Crisis: there are the effects, which in some cases are already inevitable, that require fixes (The "Fix It" aspect), which could be described as "adaptation." Stopping greenhouse gas pollution to prevent worse effects in the farther future is the "Stop It" aspect.

    Democrats are concentrating on the "Stop It" element, which is great, but unless they acknowledge and address the "Fix It" element, they will be in real political trouble, because when a number of dire events directly attributable to the climate crisis happen, the Republicans look like they're going to be ready to say: forget emissions, we need to concentrate on fixing these problems now. Don't make things worse by screwing with the economy, i.e. fossil fuels.

      Progressives should be talking about both aspects of the climate crisis now, because people don't generally understand the time lag between cause and effect.  Right now we need to act on emissions to stop the most catastrophic consequences later in the century, but there's nothing we can do to stop what's going to happen in the near future---perhaps the next decade or two.      

    "The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis." H.G. Wells "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Bob Dylan

    by Captain Future on Tue Dec 11, 2007 at 10:47:50 PM PST

    •  I agree that's the republican mantra... (0+ / 0-)

      I'm not as certain as I think you are that it will get any traction. As I said in response to Marburger's quote- no one has a problem with adaptation except insofar as it substitutes for mitigation.

      The Republicans do not really have the credibility right now to accept the reality of climate change in order to adapt to it (their base are still following a 5 year-old script) and they have a hard time following a policy of preemptive adaptation rather than letting the market dictate it. What I'm saying is that it would take a major philosophical shift for the Republican Party to take any sort of lead on environmental policy.

      •  Not now but soon (0+ / 0-)

        --right now it's a seed, but it's where they are going, and they won't call it environmental policy--it'll be national security.

        My point isn't that any Democrat "has a problem" with "adaptation" but that if they aren't talking about it, they arent--first of all-=telling the whole story, and secondly, they're apt to be blindsided by Republicans who call for dealing with the present rather than devoting resources for some possible future.

        And I hope the terms "mitigation" and "adaptation" don't become the ones everyone uses, like the stupid "waterboarding" for water torture.  Neither of those terms is accurate, and both have unfortunate associations.

        "The end of all intelligent analysis is to clear the way for synthesis." H.G. Wells "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there." Bob Dylan

        by Captain Future on Wed Dec 12, 2007 at 10:16:15 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

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