For nearly a decade, scientists working on climate change and energy in the US Federal government were told to shut up and sit down. Their reports were edited for content by political appointees, their numbers fudged or never released and they were alienated from the policymaking process. Dr James Hansen, a top NASA climate scientist, has spoken out against such censure for the past few years, but under the current administration, it is still difficult for researchers to publish findings if they don’t corroborate the current political thought on an issue – especially climate change.
It’s refreshing to hear this from President-Elect Barack Obama, who appointed Dr. John Holdren as his top science advisor and Dr. Jane Lubchenko as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
“The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. It’s about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology. It’s about listening to what our scientists have to say, even when it’s inconvenient—especially when it’s inconvenient. Because the highest purpose of science is the search for knowledge, truth and a greater understanding of the world around us. That will be my goal as President of the United States.”
Listening is something we need to do more of. We listened to scientists earlier this year when they said 450 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere would be unsafe and when they said that we must reduce concentrations to at most 350ppm if we want the planet to look something like it does right now. We didn’t make that number up — in fact, it’s a little inconvenient to have an abstract number as a target — but it’s become our main message, because the world needs to know and understand it.
Listening is a skill that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle when you’re in a rush to get something done — like taking action on climate change. That’s why we have to make sure that President Obama follows through and not only listens to the science, but really hears it.
Barack Obama has proven to be an adept messenger. Let’s make sure that he understands this scientific reality: unless we reduce carbon emissions to at most 350ppm, our children may live on a planet that looks very different than the one we live on now.