Scientists urged to step to plate on climate politics

Money and politics, the stuff of social science, now drive global warming, and climate science needs to get with it, a National Research Council report suggests.

"Demand is growing for credible, understandable and useful information for responding to climate change," says the report, called Restructuring Federal Climate Research to Meet the Challenges of Climate Change. The report, released Thursday, calls for "transformation" of climate science to emphasize the climate's influence on food, economics and public health.

Otherwise, there's lots of evidence that politicians will tackle such practical problems without scientists.

In his speech to Congress last week, for example, President Obama asked his audience "to truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change." The Senate and House had hearings last week that explored the economics of climate change.

And the Center for Public Integrity reported that about 2,340 climate change lobbyists, advocating for everything from more nuclear reactors to money for saving coral reefs, have found employment since 2008.

For the planet and its people, what's at stake is an expected rise of 6 degrees Fahrenheit in average global surface temperatures by 2100, described in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, if "greenhouse" gas emissions continue at current rates. Greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide released by burning fossil fuels such as coal, trap heat in the atmosphere and propel global warming.

Containing them could be expensive. "People are wondering how much this is going to cost," says Peter Barnes, author of Who Owns the Sky?: Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism. "There are approaches out there that could benefit many people, or ones that could benefit just a few."

Greenhouse gas emissions are surpassing the "business as usual" projections behind the estimated 6-degree increase, according to research presented by Stanford University's Christopher Field at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting last month in Chicago and last week at a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing.

A House Ways and Means Committee hearing discussed keeping emissions worldwide below levels needed to trigger a 2-degree rise, which poses "severe risks to natural systems and human health," says climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel of the Union of Concerned Scientists. But Field warns that such an increase already may be locked in this century because of newly recognized effects:

• Forest fires in drying tropical regions will release extra carbon dioxide.

• Melting tundra in the warming Arctic releases methane, a greenhouse gas.

• Warmer oceans are less able to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide.

"We're facing a very serious increase, almost certainly," Field says.

Obama and his new Energy secretary, Nobel Prize winner Stephen Chu, have championed low-emission fuels, wind and solar power, advanced biofuels and clean coal, which is specially processed to reduce its carbon emissions. But Obama in his speech also called for a cap on carbon pollution.

"That's the real story," Barnes says. "That's what the lobbyists are for."

The research council report says, "Broadly speaking, there are two mechanisms by which climate change has a fundamental impact on the economy." First are direct effects: droughts, floods, heat waves. Second are the economic cost of plans to cap emissions. "There will be costs, and those costs will be borne by everyone," the report says. The problem is that "our knowledge of the economics of climate change is surprisingly incomplete and imprecise."

Obama has called for setting up a cap on emissions and dividing the allowed emissions among the greenhouse-gas-releasing industries through the sale of permits. The anticipated revenue from those permits is $645 billion over 10 years. If the plan succeeds, Barnes predicts that industries and environmental groups will both want some of that money for their respective interests. He prefers giving voters monthly "stimulus checks" to offset the energy costs passed along by industries, "so taxpayers can see some benefits."