I happened to be in Canberra last week as the Australian government repealed its tax on carbon emissions, which has required the country’s biggest emitters to pay as much as 25 Australian dollars (about $23.50, US) per metric ton of carbon dioxide spewed into the atmosphere. With the vote in the Australian Senate, following a previous vote in the House of Representatives, Australia—one of the world’s largest per capita emitters of carbon—moved from being well ahead of the international curve to the back of the pack when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The climate change debate that has raged in the public forum in Australia—and, in similar form, in the United States—has unfortunately been governed more by politics, ideology, and money than by facts. For example, much to my dismay, after appearing on a television program in Australia, on which I ended up debating a senator from the governing Liberal Party on issues that included climate change, I offered to come to his office to show him data on climate trends, including sea level rise and ocean acidification, with the hope that the data might affect the policies he advocated. He told me that he wasn’t interested in such a discussion, because he had a constituency that supported his current opposition to carbon emission controls, and that is what mattered to him.
Of course, as a scientist, I feel particularly strongly that the public is ill served by politicians who ignore empirical evidence while making and speaking out on policy. But as the dramatic Australian vote made news worldwide, another, less-publicized set of legislative actions took place in the United States, and they could wind up being even more insidious than the Australian climate change retreat. Rather than ignore the science associated with climate change predictions, one house of the US Congress attempted to ensure that the appropriate science on climate change would simply be discontinued.
On July 10, the House approved the fiscal 2015 Energy and Water Appropriations bill on a 253-170 vote. In the bill, Congress unfortunately cut funding for such things as renewable energy, sustainable transportation, and energy efficiency; perhaps even more worrisome, however, were a series of amendments successfully attached to the bill. Each would, in its own way, specifically prohibit scientists at the Energy Department from doing precisely what Congress should mandate them to do—namely perform the best possible scientific research to illuminate, for policymakers, the likelihood and possible consequences of climate change.
Oklahoma Republican Congressman James Lankford’s amendment prohibited funding for "proposing or implementing any executive order related to the 'social cost of carbon.'" In this way, the Energy Department would presumably be prohibited from embarking on studies that might calculate the possible benefits of legislation that limits carbon dioxide emissions or the economic risks associated with climate change.
A second amendment by Arizona Republican Paul Gosar prohibited funding for the Energy Department's Climate Model Development and Validation program. One of the things that climate change deniers often pull out of their hats when arguing against acting to stem climate change is a claimed skepticism about the validity of existing climate models. I have recently countered one such skeptic on television here in Australia by accepting this skepticism—and then challenging him to present what his models predicted. (Of course he didn’t have any). The point was not merely rhetorical. If there is serious concern about the robustness of ongoing climate modeling, it is inconsistent with a desire to prohibit scientists from being able to improve their models.
A third science-defunding amendment, this time pushed by West Virginia Republican David McKinley, would prohibit the Energy Department from supporting climate change activities associated with the National Climate Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. That's right: The Energy Department would be prohibited from responding to the two landmark reports that reflect the best international scientific scholarship available on climate modeling and the possible impacts of human greenhouse gas production, locally, nationally, and internationally.
It is one thing to decide, as the Australian government has sadly done, that short-term political expediency trumps long-term policy goals when it comes to reducing the impact of climate change. It is another, however, to decide that the very possibility of human-induced climate change is so contrary to what one would like to believe—that scientific activities capable of producing factual results running counter to this belief are so threatening—that any such science should be prohibited.
The House appropriations bill is not likely to become law in its current form. The White House has already signaled its intent to veto the bill; the Senate would undoubtedly require changes before the bill came anywhere close to the president's signing desk. Still, the intent of these amendments, and the fact that they could pass a house of Congress, should concern everyone interested in the appropriate support of scientific research as a basis for sound public policy.
The analogy of an ostrich burying its head in the sand to avoid danger is clichéd but, even so, particularly appropriate to this case. An ostrich that buried its head in the sand on an ocean beach would seem particularly poorly situated to avoid a possibly rising tide. Sillier still: The ostrich that, with its head underground, refused to allow others to keep watch, to see if the tide comes in.