Friday I attended a panel discussion on the environment at a Politics & Science conference at The New School. Paul Ehrlich (population guru), Michael Oppenheimer (Director of the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy at Princeton), Steven Hayward (Political Scientist), and James Hansen (Dr. Hansen of the recent NASA/White House hush up over climate change science) talked about science, policy and the environment.
Mainly I went to see what Hansen had to say, but was equally interested in the rest of the panelists (I’ve seen Ehrlich speak before, he’s entertaining and informative). Yes, the conversation revolved around the panel’s topic, but it mainly centered on climate change. This might have been due in part to Dr. Hansen's presence, but it could be that climate change mitigation and associated policies are real, present challenges to scientists and governments alike.
The problems in politics and policy where the environment is concerned, according to the panelists, seemed to be a lack of public education/awareness of not only what the issues are, but the science behind those issues; as well as the (slow) policy making process, which is impeded, in part, by special interest groups and scientific uncertainty. The solutions? A few points that the panelists favored were market-based mitigation mechanisms, and the need for a more open dialogue between scientists-public-government. Although Hansen specifically said his role was not to specify policy, he did mention that science and public opinion have a big role to play in the matter.
Hansen was the last panelist to speak and he presented the science – graphs, charts, temperature changes and patterns over time (and we’re talking geological time – hundreds of millions of years) – all of what amount to, he concluded, evidence of human influence over climate change. In presenting this information (which wasn’t really anything new from the climate change science out there – but I could be mistaken), he stated he wasn’t representing any agency, only himself.
I’m already one of the converted on this matter – but I think he got a lot of people in the audience thinking (gauging from the gasps when he presented info about how the earth could warm 2 to 3 degrees Celsius if we don’t do something to control it – which may not seem like a lot, but the last time the earth had a temp 2 to 3 degrees Celsius higher than it is today, sea levels were also 80 feet higher. Of course the skeptics came up to ‘dispute’ his science during the Q&A). Although this appears to be a doomsday scenario – Hansen did mention that since people have induced climate change in recent years, we also have the ability to keep the global temperature in check if we can get beyond the short term interests that are ruling policy and politics today. He also stressed the importance of an open discussion and the ability to question, and said that the ultimate policy maker is the public.
My question: we have the power to change - but do we have the will?