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...
...science 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.