No debate needed on climate change

As the world’s population deals with accelerating sea level rise, intensifying droughts and floods, and dying coral reefs, our Environmental Protection Agency should not be spending taxpayer dollars to distract Americans with a fabricated, made-for-TV debate.

Recent surveys reveal that many Americans are rapidly recognizing the causes of climate change, including those responding to a survey published in the IndyStar. According to the poll, fully three quarters of Indiana voters understand that climate change is predominantly caused by human actions. While this is a dramatic increase from past polls, we’re still not in line with climate scientists. Well over 90 percent of the scientists studying Earth’s climate (most measures suggest around 97 percent), agree that the heat-trapping gases humans have released to the atmosphere are the main cause of change. The science is clear.

Although climate scientists, and scientists in general, overwhelmingly attribute climate change to human actions, special interest groups have been working for decades to obscure this consensus.

Now, as Hoosiers show a better understanding of the science, an effort from within our federal government will again try to confuse matters. A flashy performance is being planned that will portray the science of climate change as controversial, rather than widely accepted. It will even go by a colorful, patriotic-sounding name: A “red team/blue team exercise.”

This is EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s production, designed to give a big microphone to a “red team” drawn from the tiny minority of scientists who consistently, against a flood of contradicting research, dispute man’s role in the warming of our planet.

Pruitt wants to take a page out of the cynical playbook to “teach the controversy” on issues seen as potential threats. Long ago this was the strategy for the hazards of smoking; today a few well-funded think tanks continue this practice with climate change. But the science has moved far past questioning the role of humans in our climate system. We should be doing more productive things – identifying and solving the problems of climate change.

Televised debates are not designed to deeply test our understanding of complex subjects like the natural world, or of human maladies. These topics are vetted by the rigorous peer review that is part of all sound scientific research. Peer reviewers are our everyday red team. These scientists in our discipline carefully look over proposals and papers and search out their flaws. The reviewers send their anonymous, unvarnished criticisms to the editors and evaluation panels who serve as the gatekeepers for science. This peer-review process is the foundation of the scientific understandings that we have today.

Ask any climate scientist and you will hear that there are plenty of active areas of research that are worth further study. Some issues sound fairly basic: How much warming will a given amount of a heat-trapping gas cause over time? Others sound more complex: How much longer can nature soak up increasing amounts of these gases, partially compensating for human emissions?

In reality, these knowledge gaps remain because our climate system involves so many different processes, chemicals and interacting species. But although some uncertainty about the details of our climate system remains, the general effects of heat-trapping gasses on the atmosphere have been clear for decades. Our confidence that these gases are the dominant cause of warming has only risen with additional scrutiny. At the same time, three consecutive years of global temperature records have brought many of the negative consequences of climate change for people and nature into sharper focus.

What we can do locally – the thing that we really need a team for – is to figure out how to deal with the ongoing changes, and how best to slow down the rate of change. The good news is, many Indiana scientists and citizens have already formed teams to work on these issues.

One major effort now underway, involving 59 participating organizations and nearly 100 scientists from across the state, is the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment. This project, led by the Purdue Climate Change Research Center, will give Hoosiers information that they can use to plan for the future. Climate change will affect our agriculture and infrastructure, our health and our ecosystems; for each of these topics, and many more, top researchers from around the state are bringing together the best available information to help describe what we can expect in Indiana over the course of this century. The next step will be to get groups together to address specific challenges.

By treating climate science as a controversy, the head of the EPA is misreading the political climate. Instead of using uncertainty as an excuse for inaction, he should be working to protect the planetary climate and to ready the country for the changes underway.

The recent poll found that most Hoosiers already understand the science – they’re already on the blue team.

Jeffrey Dukes

Director, Purdue Climate Change Research Center

View the story on the Indianapolis Star website: No debate needed on climate change

 

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