Editor’s Note: Adam Sobel, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, is an atmospheric scientist who studies extreme events and the risks they pose to human society. Sobel is the author of “Storm Surge,” a book about Superstorm Sandy. Follow him on Twitter: @profadamsobel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
I’m a climate scientist, but I didn’t work on the latest National Climate Assessment. I wasn’t asked to do so, in fact. But if I had been, I would have thought hard before agreeing to participate, because the work is largely thankless.
The scientists who put long hours, days, and years into assessments like the NCA, those by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and others do so on a volunteer basis. The time comes out of their other projects, reducing their output – meaning fewer papers published on their own research, fewer proposals for grant funding to sustain their research groups, less time put into anything that benefits their careers directly.
To what end?
Synthesizing and interpreting a mountain of peer-reviewed literature, the report describes in great detail how global warming is already affecting the United States, and how it will do so much more in the future.
From crop failures and the loss of coastal real estate to crumbling infrastructure and the challenges of accommodating huge numbers of internal migrants, it documents the enormous and manifold costs to the United States economy and public health.
It advocates for adaptation to the climate change that has already happened and will happen soon, as well as for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit the amount that will happen in the future. And it documents many positive steps already being taken around the country towards these ends — many of them at the state and local level — while pointing out that much more is needed. It’s an impressive document, one that shows clearly how dealing with the problem is in the national interest.
Yet the government issuing this report showed no inclination to take it seriously. The Trump White House released it on Black Friday in the hope of minimizing media attention. And the official White House statement denigrated the report by claiming it was “largely based on the most extreme scenario” in which greenhouse gas emissions increase most rapidly.
This is a false statement, easily disproven by reading the report. The report considers all scenarios, including the most optimistic, where the most aggressive policies to reduce greenhouse gases are put in place (unrealistic as that presently seems). And in any case, this was an ironic criticism to hear from this administration since it is doing everything in its power to make sure the most extreme scenario is what happens by promoting policies that maximize fossil fuel use.
Apparently lacking any substantive criticism, Rick Santorum said on CNN that climate scientists are in it for the money. In fact, the scientists working on the NCA were paid nothing to do it. It’s true that they are professionals, and thus are paid their regular salaries to do climate science, which includes studying global warming and reporting on their findings.
So? Should important science be done by amateurs? When a doctor tells you they’ve diagnosed you with a disease and you need treatment, do you discount their advice because they get paid to treat the sick?
These questions, of course, are beside the point. It’s hard to believe that President Trump, Santorum, and the other skeptics are as clueless as they sound when they talk about climate. It’s more likely that they know the science is more or less correct, but pretend to disbelieve it because they don’t want to think about the policy implications.
And at the moment, they don’t have to. While the Democratic takeover of the House may slow down Trump’s anti-environment agenda, it can’t stop it. This government can continue to act as if the problem weren’t there.
And the denial and avoidance are much older than the Trump administration. We are in such dire straits now, with little chance of averting dangerous climate change, because of decades of inaction. And while Republican obstruction has often been the reason, climate hasn’t been high on the priority list of Democratic Presidents or Congresses most of the time either (second-term Obama being the biggest exception), so both parties can share some blame.
And during all these decades of doing next to nothing, previous National Climate Assessments and IPCC reports and the rest were issued, one after another. So what’s the point of another report?
Well, there is new information. The specifics of climate change do come into ever clearer focus, year by year, because the science advances and the globe keeps warming. This report reflects that, going beyond past reports with a greater richness of detail and specificity in its elaboration of the many ways in which climate change interacts with a range of problems that would be there anyway.
But at the same time, the basic story has been known for a long time, and it hasn’t had much impact, compared to the scale of the problem. Why, for that matter, do scientists keep doing climate science at all?
Partly because it’s fascinating and we love doing it. But also because, while knowing the truth as best we can doesn’t guarantee that action will be based on it, it’s a necessary prerequisite.
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We have to believe that the people who take science seriously and the people with the power to do something about it may someday – hopefully sooner rather than later – be the same people. We have to be ready for that with all the knowledge we can muster.
So, to my colleagues who worked hard on this report, thank you. Your work is important, whether it feels that way today — and I hope it does – or not.