For Climate Science, Transitions Continue

January 21, 2017 · 0 comments

The Inauguration of Donald Trump yesterday marked the end of the Transition. Yet, the end of the Transition with a big “T” marks the beginning of small “t” transitions for everyone else—political winners and losers alike.

According to Reed College historian Joshua Howe, climate science is particularly affected by such changes, absorbing and adapting to shifts in political winds for many decades. The continually transitioning relationship climate science has forged with politics—especially environmental politics—is chronicled in Howe’s book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming (Univ. of Washington Press, 2014).

As a past recipient of the AMS Graduate Fellowship in the History of Science, Howe presented the basics of his book at the 2009 AMS Annual Meeting. His dissertation was expanded into the book. In a recent interview at New Books Network (listen here), Howe explains how climate scientists have had to reinvent their approach to environmental advocacy. In Howe’s view, the approach politically active scientists took to triggering action on climate change simply didn’t work well, making the field ripe for further transition.

It was clear early on that climate change, as an environmental concern, was unprecedented in scale and complexity. Following on the debate in the 1970s over the nation’s Supersonic Transport program, atmospheric science had won a place at the environmental table. But environmentalists were used to dealing with local pollution and wilderness access—clear quality of life issues that resonated with their middle class constituency, Howe says. They were interested in concrete, simple, nontechnical issues they could rally around—and climate change was too complex to fit those parameters. Climate change wasn’t a low-hanging fruit ripe for political victories.

Meanwhile, the issue of nuclear winter provided a further, politically loaded impetus to the climate community, Howe said. But the result was a split, with some scientists becoming more politically outspoken within the environmental movement, while others became more entrenched within a conservative physical science community. As a result, the relationship of government funding to climate science became politically fraught.

Scientists initially reached out on climate change through the government agencies in the 1970s. Howe points out that “working within government bureaucracies left scientists vulnerable to political change.” The Carter administration shifted directions; Reagan then arrived with budget cuts and curtailed access to bureaucracy.

In response, many climate scientists sought a technical consensus that might force political action by the shear power of knowledge. The scientists attacking the problem in the 1970s onward had, as Howe puts it, a “naïve” attitude.

“Better knowledge, climate scientists believed, would lead to better policy,” Howe said in his 2009 AMS presentation. “Perhaps it is time for scientists to drop the false veil of political neutrality and begin discussing science and politics as two sides of the same coin.”

The AMS Annual Meeting in Seattle is an ideal opportunity to ponder the future of the atmospheric sciences during the next four years. Check out the Monday Town Hall on “Climate Change – How can we make this a national priority?” (12:15 p.m., Room 613). Then attend the panel session on priorities of the Trump Administration and Congress later that day (4 p.m., same room). The panelists include Ray Ban, Fern Gibbons, and Barry Lee Myers.