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Why science should be important to Congress

Apr 3, 2017
In The News

As the only Ph.D. scientist in Congress, I am honored to take my perspective as a scientist to Washington and make thoughtful policy decisions based on facts. It also means I have an obligation to speak out when our national policies deviate from sound scientific principles. Climate change is an urgent example of the need for more policymakers with a scientific background to speak up.

There is little scientific doubt that climate change is real. Year after year of record temperatures confirm the decades-long trend that has been observed worldwide. Scientific data recorders on land, in the sea, in the air, and atmospheric observations by satellites in space tell the same story. Glaciers and ice sheets that have been photographed for decades can be seen melting away. This warming is now happening at a rate higher than at any time in Earth's geological history.

 There is also little scientific doubt that global warming is being caused in large part by human activities. The basic scientific principle can be understood by anyone who has walked outside on a clear night after a hot summer's day: when you hold out your arms, you can feel the heat radiating from the still-hot ground as it cools off by radiating its heat out into space. Anyone who has felt this heat must realize that if mankind puts something into the atmosphere that blocks this heat from escaping, our Earth will have trouble cooling off at night and will gradually heat up. This is exactly the heat-trapping effect of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane that scientists have been warning about for decades.

Although the basic scientific mechanism is straightforward, extensive measurement and detailed analysis of our climate is required to predict the likely range of future effects. Fortunately, we have this analysis thanks to decades of federally funded scientific research around the world and state-of-the-art supercomputers like those at Argonne Laboratory. Although some scientific uncertainty remains, most experts believe that within the next 30 to 70 years we will begin to see very significant, and then catastrophic, economic, and social consequences.

So why haven't we acted against climate change, and why does our political system promote those who ignore this scientific reality? I believe there are two causes: first, some politicians focus on short-term political gain rather on the long-term best interests of our nation, and, second, they deliberately exaggerate scientific uncertainty to hide from the real costs of solving this problem.

In politics, there is often little to be gained by solving long-term problems or by making investments that prevent catastrophes that are unlikely to happen in any given year. You can claim to be a hero in the next election if you cut taxes and balance the budget by cutting long-term investments. Then when the damage from those shortsighted decisions becomes obvious -- when the old dam breaks, the rusty bridge falls, our financial system implodes, or underinvestment in our children's education cripples our economy -- you then just blame it on the other political party.

Our response to the approaching climate change disaster has also been clouded and delayed by politicians who deliberately exaggerate the uncertainty that is present in any scientific measurement. Scientists are trained to accept uncertainty as a necessary feature of any scientific result. We are cautious to claim any result is an absolute because statistical uncertainty is inherent in the scientific process. In our everyday lives, uncertainty means not knowing. For scientists, however, it means uncertainty about how well something is known -- not if it is known.

In science and in life, there are costs and benefits associated with any decision, and there are always uncertainties associated with those costs and benefits. However, I often hear politicians make the argument that we should take no action against global warming as long as there is any remaining scientific uncertainty, or even a single scientist can be dredged up who retains doubts. This is nonsense. For example, the exact value of the gravitational constant is subject to scientific uncertainty, but that uncertainty is no reason to take a running jump off a cliff.

Many of my colleagues in Washington have failed to address climate change with the urgency it deserves. All signs from our current presidential administration show no signs that this will change soon. In fact, President Trump has famously claimed that climate change is a Chinese hoax, and one of the first acts of his appointees was to remove the word "science" from the mission statement of the Environmental Protection Agency. The head of this agency, Scott Pruitt, just recently claimed that carbon dioxide does not contribute to climate change despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Climate change is no longer just a topic that should concern only climate scientists or politicians. It will have serious consequences for long-term national security, foreign policy, and the health and welfare of our families. The Department of Defense issued a report in 2015 calling climate change a security risk to our country. An increase in sea levels will force our military bases to move or reorganize. Rising sea levels will create waves of refugees to our shores and to those of our allies.

Scientists have already expressed concern that droughts and other natural disasters connected to climate change could trigger social unrest. Recent research suggests a connection between the conflict in Syria and a drought made worse by climate change. While the causes of the civil war in Syria are complex, social scientists and policymakers have called for a closer look at how drought and unscientific agricultural management may explain the social unrest that led to it.

We need elected officials to accept evidence-based decision making, and to support long term research in science, technology, and innovation so we can find ways to transition our way of life to a more sustainable model. We owe it to our children, their children, and the future of this great country to take action and stop climate change now.

Congressman Bill Foster represents the 11th District in Illinois. He has an undergraduate degree in physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. For more than 20 years, he worked as a high-energy physicist and particle accelerator designer at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and was a member of the team that discovered the top quark, the heaviest known form of matter.