On Friday evening, the Washington Post posted a story about the Trump White House quashing testimony prepared by a State Department analyst for the House Intelligence Committee. What triggered the suppression? The department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research balked at removing references to the scientific consensus on climate change.
The testimony warned that climate change could bring “possibly catastrophic” consequences.
This episode fits a pattern. There have been many news accounts of the administration scrubbing websites and other outlets of references to climate change. The president plays down concerns about a warming planet. This past week he did so while clouding the elementary difference between climate and weather.
Yet there is more at work than stripping away words as part of reinforcing such things as the president withdrawing the country from the Paris climate accord. He and others in his administration seem driven to devalue science, a curious position when Akron and many other communities are quick to tout the importance of STEM learning.
Yes, that S stands for science.
The New York Times recently reported on an alarming step proposed by the White House. The administration intends to take aim at the scientific modeling that is part of trying to understand the causes and consequences of climate change.
This modeling incorporates what we know about the climate past, along with many other factors, to project the future. Thus, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sees the planet on track for a temperature increase of 4.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. That’s 8 degrees Fahrenheit.
The National Climate Assessment warned last fall about a similarly calamitous outcome if we stick to the current path for carbon emissions. The Paris accord calls for limiting the rise to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. As it is, the planet has added nearly 1 degree Celsius since 1880.
How would the White House alter the modeling? The U.S. Geological Survey wants to do away with projections beyond 2040. That would eliminate those worst-case scenarios. The agency argues the result would be a more accurate and carefully drawn portrait of the fallout from climate change.
To an extent, that may be true, two decades ahead more easily grasped than seven or eight into the future. At the same time, there’s good reason for the methodology scientists now use. It presents a complete picture. Project to 2040, and the result misses the dynamic of the greenhouse effect, mounting carbon emissions bringing accelerated harm. It makes clear, too, what is avoided if aggressive measures are taken to reduce emissions.
Defenders of the modeling compare the process to a physician discussing a serious illness with a patient. Better to know the prognosis for the short term and the long term of treatment options, or doing nothing at all. Something similar applies to businesses making strategic decisions. There is a premium in having a rich trove of helpful information.
For instance, Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist, noted in the Guardian last week that in recent years, the country has lost almost 2 percent of gross domestic product in weather-related disasters. Modeling can provide clues about the cost of such events as climate change advances.
Scientists readily acknowledge that modeling involves many moving parts, and thus it can be a tricky and flawed endeavor. Yet evaluations of past modeling, going back to the 1970s, reveal an effective process. In the main, climate scientists have been right in their projections, even remarkably accurate about such things as the future concentration of carbon emissions in the atmosphere.
That is the essence of science, developing, accumulating and sharing sound, peer-reviewed knowledge. To restrict climate modeling as the president proposes suggests a preference for not knowing, or the ignorance that leaves the way open to saying “I had no idea!” when things go bad. Worse, it amounts to propaganda, half-truths to serve a political agenda, modeling curtailed to help in rolling back regulations that curb carbon emissions from power plants, cars and trucks.
Soon, the 50th anniversary of the moon landing will be here, along with those images of Earth alone in space, a reminder of how fragile the planet is, and why it matters to have all that science can tell us.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.