Originally published on May 11th, 2014 at generalcirculation.blogspot.com
This Tuesday, the U.S. government released its third National Climate Assessment, which chronicles the current impacts of climate change in the U.S. The report is full of illuminating graphics and important information (anyone interested should check out the assessment website, linked above, which is very navigable and clear), but the overall message is that the U.S. is already experiencing measurable and attributable impacts of climate change and that the negative impacts greatly outweigh the positive.
After reading news reports on the assessment, a friend emailed imploring me, as a climate scientist and policy fellow, to tell her what we should do about climate change and mobilize our friends to do it.
This is a tremendously difficult question for me: what should we do about climate change? It's a tremendously difficult question for anyone, but climate scientists like myself get caught in an especially troubling Catch-22 when posed with it. My friend was asking about it on an individual level, but it got me thinking about the bigger question of what we as a society should do about climate change and how (if) climate scientists like myself can go about answering that question.
On the one hand, I have scientific knowledge and some policy experience that perhaps allows me unique perspective. This perspective is ostensibly objective, informed by apolitical facts about the way that the climate system and policy structures work. I also have lots of opinions about what we should do about climate change, but these are colored by my personal values regarding tradeoffs I'm willing to make and what I think is important.
Would we trust climate experts' other statements as objective, if they were simultaneously making subjective recommendations based on their personal values? Some argue that climate scientists damage science by advocating policies. But we also so frequently ask climate experts to tell us what to do, and if they are silent then we lose the arguably best informed voice in the conversation. Figuring out how to separate and balance the two is one of the great struggles of being a climate scientist (or an expert in any politicized field). Here's one climate scientist's approach, as well as a back-and-forth on the subject from the New York Times opinion page. I thought myself in circles just clicking between the various articles that other climate scientists have written on the subject.
On the day that the assessment came out, the American Geophysical Union hosted a conference call for its members with some of the key authors of the assessment. Listening in, I was particularly struck by one exchange during the Q&A portion of the call:
One caller rambled for a bit about his favorite method of capturing carbon dioxide before it's released into the atmosphere, before asking the panelists if they had advocated this method in the report. The panelists' response was one that I hear very often regarding assessment reports: the report is intended to be policy relevant but not policy prescriptive, and as such they listed all well-established methods but did not advocate for any particular one. The caller responded tersely with "well, I don't understand what that means" (after which the moderator diplomatically moved the conversation on to the next question), and I think this gets to the heart of an often under-appreciated subtlety of how we deal with climate change.
Climate experts* cannot strictly tell us what we should do about climate change. Climate science tells us what the impacts of climate change are and can tell us how various policy options might do better or worse at mitigating those impacts. Climate economics can tell us how much those various policy options might cost. Climate policy-makers can provide us with a range of policy options. But the choice of which path to take is a fundamentally value-driven question. Depending on what you think is important, you may think we should do nothing to address climate change, everything to address climate change, or anything in between. (Whether what you think is important is defensible or not is another question altogether.)
*I should clarify that, although I hope half-a-decade in the field has given me some advanced understanding, I'm at best en route to being an expert.
In that way, climate experts can tell us what we can do about climate change. But what we should do about climate change is a volatile substance that comes from the combination of what climate experts tell us and what we think is important.
The silver lining is that this theoretically means that accepting the science of climate change does not oblige you to any one course of action. Many people suggest that one of the root causes of climate skepticism, either of the fact that its happening or the fact that it's human-induced, is that skeptics disagree with the courses of action that are often presented as a necessary consequence of the science.
So perhaps this, at least at this point in my ongoing training, is my climate scientist response to the question of what you should do about climate change: You should understand it--invest honestly and to your best ability in learning the facts behind it, what the impacts are likely to be, what the suggested policy options are, and what their pros and cons are. Resources like the National Climate Assessment website are a perfect way of doing this without trying to get a PhD in it. Then (and only then) you should use your own value system (being honest about what that value system is) to decide what, if anything, should be done about it.
In the meantime, I'll go tell my friend all of my personal opinions about what we should do about climate change.