“You have your scientists and we have ours.” That was the response from a Republican staffer when offered impartial information from our team of scientists at the first Climate Science Day (CSD) in 2011. An annual event connecting scientists with their members of Congress and staffers on climate science, the eighth CSD this year revealed just how much has changed since those memorable first meetings. This year, staffers from the same party rolled their eyes when told of such comments; our discussions this year were much more engaging.
Nevertheless there remains a large disconnect between the scientific community’s view of anthropogenic climate change and that publicly held by many lawmakers. A fundamental challenge faced by some Republicans is that they cannot get too far ahead of their constituents on this issue; to do so is to risk suffering Rep. Inglis’s (R–S.C.) 2010 fate of being “primaried”—with many pointing to his ahead-of-his-time climate change views as a major reason for his defeat.
How can lawmakers serve the interests of their constituents on this immense challenge to America and the world without risking their seat at the table? There is a fine line to be walked here, yet there are many constructive steps they can take. Members could understand better the science of climate change and how their districts or states may be affected. Such explorations could include the risks and potential costs of the impacts to the districts/states due to climate change as well as the costs to mitigate future impacts. Given the potential consequences of climate change for agriculture, tourism, national security, fishing, insurability, extreme weather events, infrastructure and more, a representative or senator could host community meetings bringing together local stakeholders and scientists to discuss the risks and opportunities. The elected leader could offer support for local government officials working to prepare for the effects of climate change and minimize harmful impacts.
The interface between science and politics has moved on since the time of Galileo. It is imperative that the scientists engaged by policymakers have a broad view of the science; good policy making incorporates good science. Congressional committees parading scientists with views well outside the broad mainstream of the scientific enterprise is arguably irresponsible to the American people. The number and training of scientists, the breadth of data relating to climate and measurement thereof, and the sophistication of the science make it hard to justify repeatedly giving a stage to extreme, arguably ill-founded, views. The American people deserve better. While many differences amongst scientists remain, respected testimony reflecting the level of scientific confidence in the realities and risks of a changing climate could be presented.
The political ground has shifted significantly since 2011 with the creation of the Climate Solutions Caucus (CSC) by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R–Fla.) and Rep. Ted Deutsch (D–Fla.) and the introduction of the Republican-only “environmental stewardship” House resolution addressing a changing climate, in the last Congress by (now retired) Rep. Chris Gibson (R–N.Y.) and by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R–N.Y.) in this Congress. Gibson’s resolution garnered 16 cosponsors and Stefanik’s is at 22 cosponsors and counting.
Also dating back to the 114th Congress, membership of the CSC, whose purpose is to educate members on economically viable options to reduce climate risk, has now reached 68 members, with equal numbers from each party by design. Perhaps most importantly for this discussion, none of the members of the Caucus or sponsors of the Gibson resolution in the 114th Congress appeared to have been penalized in their 2016 primaries for these climate science actions.
The tenor of first-time CSD meetings with members or staffers shifts as they realize we aren’t there to proselytize on climate change and what, if anything, to do about it. CSD participants are urged to respect the line between science and policy, noting that the elected leaders and their staff are the policy experts. Once our intentions are apparent, earnest discussions often ensue. The lesson? Scientists can achieve more effective engagement as good listeners, gaining a better understanding of the political challenges under which policy is made.
The disconnect between many scientists’ views on the risks of a changing climate and the views of lawmakers is often not about the facts so much as about politics, society and our economy. Recognizing this, there are effective, constructive options open to senators and representatives whose constituents do not hold that humans are a primary driver of climate change. Denying there is any risk is not an acceptable option.