Climate Science and Response: What’s the Role for Politics?

Angus Duncan, Chair  Oregon Global Warming Commission

Angus Duncan, Chair
Oregon Global Warming Commission

It wasn’t so long ago that Democrats and Republicans could stipulate to the facts, then agree to argue cordially on remedies. On any given issue, Ds might be disposed to a regulatory fix while Rs would more readily defer to market dynamics to sort out an issue. But there was an underlying agreement on fundamentals: most all of us valued a market economy and accepted a role for government to ensure that the rules of the road assured fairness and protected public values.

Rs and Ds both took pride in our records on civil liberties, on protecting the environment, and on education as affording equal opportunity for all.

American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies...
— How Democracies Die. Levitsky and Ziblatt, 2017

Most of us didn’t describe our opposites as enemies or as threats to the nation.

So it should be with deep distress that we contemplate the political divisiveness in this country on so many issues, and none more distressing than the division on climate concerns. Notwithstanding the several decades of intensive peer-reviewed scientific examination of climate change, 2016 surveys[1] show that 65 percent of Ds but only 31 percent of Rs, agree that “global warming is happening and is caused mostly by human activities.” 

We persist in framing this factual conclusion as a belief; as in 31 percent of Rs believe humans are causing climate change. Media reporting reinforces the substitution of belief for factual conclusion.

In 2012 Jack Roberts and I published in The Oregonian an OpEd titled, perhaps naively, “Bipartisanship needed: Keeping climate science and climate politics apart.”

Jack is a lifelong Republican and a former statewide elected officeholder (Oregon Labor Commissioner 1995-2003). I am a lifelong Democrat, from a family prominent in Oregon state politics, and have been appointed by Democratic Governors to state and regional policy bodies. As you might expect, Jack and I disagreed in many respects on public policy priorities and remedies, including on energy choices, ways, and means.

Polarized views about climate issues stretch from the causes and cures for climate change to trust in climate scientists and their research...Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans see climate-related matters through vastly different lenses.
— The Politics of Climate. Pew Research Center, October 4, 2016

We found we had our disagreements on climate policy responses as well. But we began by heeding the famous dictum attributed to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) in 1994 that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” That is, we began our view of climate issues by respecting the scientific method – observation, hypothesis, experiment, outcome, peer review – that has underpinned scientific inquiry for many hundreds of years, a process that is not an infallible tool for understanding the physical world but a more reliable one by far than any number of belief systems ungrounded in factual evidence.

In my recollection of our discussions, we stipulated to the facts of climate science and addressed the options for responding. Jack favored building on the nation’s technical experience with nuclear energy, a near-zero carbon technology. I expressed concern about nuclear costs and waste risks, and preferred relying on wind, solar, and other renewable technologies, a preference for which Jack expressed skepticism on grounds that these technologies were (in 2012) immature and themselves costly. We both agreed that first reliance should be on energy efficiency to reduce the need to burn coal and gas in power plants, and on more efficient cars and trucks. The discussion ranged back and forth, with us both ultimately conceding that all low-carbon technologies with cost and technical potential should be in the toolbox.

But underlying these disagreements was this coda to the OpEd:

“Whether you "believe" climate change is a certainty or just 90 percent or 70 percent or even 50 percent likely, the risk is too great to postpone acting. So while the scientific debate should remain free to continue, we believe that the policy debate needs to move to center stage. . . . Between the two of us there are significant differences on the most effective and appropriate responses. What is most needed now is a robust debate over how to address this challenge, not inaction based on denial of the evidence.”

Here’s the OpEd in its entirety, published in The Oregonian in November 2012 (re-published with permission):

Bipartisanship needed: Keeping climate science and climate politics apart
November 11, 2012
By Jack Roberts and Angus Duncan

With the end of this contentious political year finally in sight, we thought it might be a good time to engage in a little constructive bipartisanship. No, we're not going to urge people to support a deserving charity or remind them of all the things we have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. Instead, we'd like to focus on a topic that we both feel has become unnecessarily partisan and divisive: climate change. 

The two of us belong to different parties and generally support different political candidates. One of us heads an environmental foundation, the other an economic development agency. Our political philosophies and visions of a better future are clearly distinct, although not necessarily incompatible. 

Despite these differences, we are both convinced by the evidence that the science underpinning climate change is compelling; that climate change is occurring; that human activity is the primary cause; that it represents a real and present danger to us; and that we are running out of time to deal with this problem effectively. 

We understand that not everyone shares these views, and that's OK. Among the values we share with most Americans is the belief that free and open debate is not only a foundational principle of our society, but is also indispensable to any productive discussion and successful resolution of difficult problems. 

But "believing" in global warming is not like believing in reincarnation or original sin. It's not even like believing in states' rights or the progressive income tax. There are many subjects on which one person's beliefs and opinions are just as good as anyone else's. The science of climate change is not one of those subjects. It is either a scientific reality or it is not. Our personal preferences or opinions are irrelevant. Debate over global warming has to be based on scientific evidence and the scientific method. 

For that reason, climate change shouldn't be a partisan issue. There's no such thing as Republican or Democratic science. Why then should Republicans and Democrats be divided along party lines on the scientific question of whether climate change is real and what's causing it? It would be like the parties dividing over whether flu is caused by a virus, or the tides, by the moon's gravitational pull. 

Many Republicans seem to resist the science of climate change because they distrust environmentalists or find the steps proposed to combat global warming unpalatable. Many Democrats appear to embrace it because the resulting policy prescriptions -- conservation, alternative energy and reduced consumerism -- are agendas they were pushing already. 

We are not among those who believe that the science of climate change is "settled" and that further debate should be stifled. The history of scientific discovery is rife with examples of well-established theories being altered and even disproved. But the debate should be based on science, not partisan strategies or conspiracy theories on either side. 

We also recognize that serious policy disagreements remain as to the best remedies even among those who are convinced that the climate threat is real. But time is not on our side. Greenhouse gases accumulate in the atmosphere over decades and dissipate slowly. Their expected impacts are often lagging but persist for decades thereafter. If the science is right, 20 years from now the problem will be immeasurably greater and the remedies far more difficult and costly. 

Whether you "believe" climate change is a certainty or just 90 percent or 70 percent or even 50 percent likely, the risk is too great to postpone acting. So while the scientific debate should remain free to continue, we believe that the policy debate needs to move to center stage. Should we concentrate primarily on replacing coal plants with renewable energy and conservation, or new nuclear plant designs? How big a bet should we place on research into new technologies or on diplomacy and international agreements? What about a carbon tax? Since none of these approaches is mutually exclusive, the range of alternatives to consider and the mix of policies available seem almost limitless. 

Between the two of us there are significant differences on the most effective and appropriate responses. What is most needed now is a robust debate over how to address this challenge, not inaction based on denial of the evidence. 

In a sense, this is like the debate over the federal deficit. There are legitimate differences of opinion over whether the appropriate response to the deficit is to raise taxes, cut spending, stimulate growth or a mix of these. Advocates of each of these positions have something to contribute to the debate. Those who simply ask "What deficit?" do not. 

Jack Roberts is a Eugene businessman and former Oregon labor commissioner. Angus Duncan is president of the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and chairman of the Oregon Global Warming Commission.

[1] Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, November 29, 2017