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Policy Program Notes
An Exciting Year on Capitol Hill Amidst a Changing Climate
by James A. Bradbury
Without quite realizing it at the time, I made a life-changing decision by stepping out of the climate research lab and into the policy fray when I accepted a Congressional Science and Technology Policy Fellowship. My fellowship was cosponsored by the AMS and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), and the program is administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I spent the past year working on Capitol Hill for a member of the U.S. Congress, learning about the political process and trying to move America’s energy and environmental policies in a more sustainable direction.
In retrospect, I should have known how far I would stray from the lab when I started taking breaks from completing my dissertation to make volunteer contributions— along with many other scientists—to the Northeast Climate Impacts Assessment report, organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). My first clue came when the UCS was hosting one of their first working group meetings and I approached a receptionist to ask for directions to the conference rooms. The woman behind the counter knew it before I did: “Are you a concerned scientist?” she asked. Somewhat amused by the question, I smiled and responded, “I’m actually very concerned.”
Without a doubt, America still has a very long way to go in confronting the threat of anthropogenic climate change, and our energy-use habits provide many examples of this truism. For one, despite decades of continued growth in the solar and wind industries, U.S. consumption of electricity from nonhydro renewable resources has remained below 2%. We also still rely on oil to fuel all but 3% of our transportation needs.
Meanwhile, recent decades of advancements in the geophysical and biological sciences have dramatically outpaced the policies that are needed to address the environmental problems brought to light by this research. Fortunately, with energy bills having recently passed through both houses of Congress and greenhouse gas emissions regulations under active and serious consideration, science is playing an increasing role in shaping how new policies are written and enforced. For example, in order for ethanol production incentives to be climate-friendly, they should be written with built-in science-based protocols for greenhouse gas emissions accounting throughout the fuel life cycle of cultivation, harvesting, processing and consumption.
Science also directly informs the complicated matter of how future climate change is most likely to affect us in our daily lives. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently reported to policy makers that “it is very likely that hot extremes, heat waves, and heavy precipitation events will continue to become more frequent.” Yet, for over seven years the federal government’s coordinating body for scientific research—the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP)—has not produced any policy-relevant documents on the subject of regional climate change impacts or adaptation. This September, the National Research Council reported that local government officials, water resource managers, and farmers are not well integrated into the CCSP’s research priorities. The panel concluded that “[d]iscovery science and understanding of the climate system are proceeding well, but use of that knowledge to support decisionmaking and to manage risks and opportunities of climate change is proceeding slowly.”
Nevertheless, there are more reasons for optimism than many of us realize. The first bit of good news is that several solutions to the climate challenge are actually very popular. For example, Americans support renewable sources of energy. According to a 2005 Yale University poll, 86% of us think the U.S. government should do more to expand our use of these technologies to fuel our homes, cars and businesses. Less wasted energy saves money, while large-scale investments in solar, wind, geothermal, and even wave power technologies can help improve air and water quality, protect human health, increase energy security, and, as an added benefit, create domestic jobs.
I often get asked if the U.S. Congress is really serious about considering mandatory greenhouse gas emissions regulations. There is definitely momentum in this direction, with state houses from Sacramento to Montpelier taking the lead in advancing climatefriendly regulations like greater vehicle fuel efficiency, low carbon transportation fuel requirements, and cap-and-trade greenhouse gas emissions reduction programs. The State of California has a long history of developing environmental standards that are more stringent than those of the federal government, and other states are allowed to follow suit. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of the United States sided with many states in ruling that carbon dioxide is a pollutant and that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate such emissions from vehicle tailpipes.
Now, businesses are putting pressure on Washington to simplify a growing patchwork of state-level regulations by establishing a single federal climate policy. This helps to explain the growing membership of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (U.S. CAP), which now consists of dozens of major automobile manufacturers, oil companies, utilities, and environmental groups. All of them are at the table and committed to the common goal of avoiding dangerous levels of climate change. In fact, the entire U.S. CAP membership has unanimously agreed that an economy-wide cap-and-trade program should be established with aggressive greenhouse-gas emissions reductions targets. The group also agrees that the United States must take the lead, regardless of commitments made by other nations.
Finally, a word of unsolicited advice to my fellow climate and weather scientists: I strongly encourage you to get involved with developing practical solutions to the climate challenge, if you feel so inclined. In academia, there are great opportunities to contribute by engaging with water resource managers and local farmers through extension programs, or by contributing to policy-relevant scientific assessments. Beyond academia, the options are nearly unlimited: from the federal government to the local town council, scientific research skills and expertise are needed now more than ever to help develop and implement environmental regulations, design more sustainable cities, and prepare communities for the challenges and opportunities that come with a changing climate.
If you would like more information on the AMS Policy Program or how you can help, please contact William H. Hooke, the program’s director, at 202-737- 9006, ext. 420, or or Stephanie Armstrong, AMS director of development, at 617-227- 2426, ext. 235.