Climate Change, Scientists, and Policy-Making

“Oppenheimer said policy-makers will have to
respond to the consequences of higher
temperatures in four main areas: access to water
and food; human health in extreme climate
conditions; ecosystems and species; and sea-level
rise from ice sheet melting. ”

29 February 2008

Science Policy
Scientists “Uniquely Positioned” to Assist Climate Policy-Makers

[PHOTOGRAPH] Michael Oppenheimer, Stephen
Schneider, David Goldston, and Ralph Cicerone

As governments around the world search for ways
to address rising greenhouse gas emissions,
researchers should be ready to offer expert
advice to lawmakers seeking a broad view of
global climate change and its potential
consequences, according to a distinguished panel
of science policy advisers at a recent Capitol
Hill briefing.

The panel, convened by AAAS and three other
scientific societies on 11 January, drew more
than 150 congressional staffers, think tank
representatives, university faculty, and
journalists spilling out of the briefing room in
the Rayburn House Office Building. In front of a
crowd eager for answers, the speakers discussed
how scientists can assist policy-makers in their
analysis of climate change proposals awaiting
congressional debate.

“Funding scientists and their research is going
to help answer questions like how much are humans
responsible for global warming and what are the
potential effects on our lives,” said David
Goldston, former staff director of the House
Science Committee and a lecturer at Princeton
University. “These are very important questions,
and we need answers as we move forward.”

“Scientists are uniquely positioned to help the
public understand the dangers and help lawmakers
make informed decisions about addressing climate
change,” agreed Michael Oppenheimer, the Albert
G. Milbank Professor of Geosciences and
International Affairs at Princeton University.

But Oppenheimer, Goldston, and the other
panelists acknowledged the limits of scientific
advice in crafting climate change policy, which
will have to incorporate a wide set of political,
economic, and social considerations beyond the
scientific data, they said.

“Climate goals involve more than science, so in
the end, policy-makers, not scientific
institutions, should choose them,” Oppenheimer
said, although he also noted that it “may even be
part of the scientist’s professional obligation”
to comment publicly on the implications of their

“Scientists do not hang up their citizenship when
they enter a briefing room,” agreed Stephen
Schneider, a senior climatologist and professor
at Stanford University. He stressed the need for
scientists to support their public arguments by
“clearly identifying which opinions are personal
values and which are based on professional

Although nearly all researchers agree that the
Earth is in the midst of a human-caused warming
period, no scientist can definitely state how hot
it will get or predict exactly how the Earth will
respond, Schneider cautioned. He compared the
Earth’s rate of warming to a carnival
pinwheel-“the great greenhouse gamble,” he
quipped-with different-sized sections
representing different average global temperature

The largest section on the pinwheel chart,
created by researchers at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, represents the most
likely outcome (22.5% likelihood) of a 2 to 2.5°C
increase in temperature. The smallest slice of
the pinwheel (a 3.8% likelihood) predicts an
increase of more than 5°C.

Oppenheimer said policy-makers will have to
respond to the consequences of higher
temperatures in four main areas: access to water
and food; human health in extreme climate
conditions; ecosystems and species; and sea-level
rise from ice sheet melting.

The exact nature of these challenges remains
uncertain, however, and several panel speakers
urged the U.S. Congress to support sharp
increases in climate science research funding to
fill in the details. Goldston singled out
researchers at NASA Earth Science programs-“the
biggest people in Earth observation and
monitoring”-as a group that deserved an immediate
budget increase.

By measuring climate changes in fragile regions,
developing more powerful computer programs to
improve climate predictions, and increasing
satellite observation budgets, researchers can
“accelerate scientific research to deliver more
useful results,” said Ralph Cicerone, president
of the National Academy of Sciences, who also
suggested that the scientific community evaluate
a diverse portfolio of carbon mitigation

“There are also some really big bioengineering
ideas that are not quite developed, nor fully
articulated or peer-reviewed, so they are far
from ready for implementation,” Cicerone noted.

“But we would be foolish not to look into them. The stakes are too high.”

The American Geophysical Union, the American
Meteorological Society, and the Pew Center for
Global Climate Change cosponsored the briefing
with AAAS.


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