Climate Science in Lieu of Climate Action Is Unconscionable

This image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows storm damage from Superstorm Sandy in a portion of New Haven Conn. taken du
This image provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows storm damage from Superstorm Sandy in a portion of New Haven Conn. taken during an overflight with Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, Mass, following Hurricane Sandy Wednesday Oct. 30, 2012. (AP Photo/US Coast Guard, Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Simpson)

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.