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Environment

An Inconvenient Assessment

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyNovember 12, 2007 10:15 PM

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Folks: The latest issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is now on newsstands, and online you can also read, in PDF, my cover story. Entitled "An Inconvenient Assessment," it's about the biggest Bush administration climate science scandal that you've never heard of. Let me repaste the opening paragraphs to get you into the story:

Global warming is definitely happening. That's the easy part. But it's no cinch to dramatize the phenomenon, or to personalize it. As scientists repeatedly caution, climate change can't be cited as the direct cause of any individual weather event, no matter how extreme. Furthermore, many climate-induced changes are occurring on a relatively slow timescale. Take sea-level rise: It's one of the most certain outcomes of global warming, but at least at the moment the increase is probably about an inch per decade--not exactly something you'd notice on your beach vacation. And as for the culprits behind it all--the greenhouse gases--they're invisible in the atmosphere. All of which raises the question: How do you make people wake up about global warming, take it seriously, and perceive it as a core component of the future they'll have to live with? How do you get them to prepare, just as they might for a terrorist attack, or a pandemic, or an intense hurricane landfall? One idea would be a national initiative to make climate science and its implications accessible to every American, translating the science in a way that citizens cannot only understand but also begin to perceive in their backyards and communities. Sure, you'd need a rigorous scientific report, but you'd also have to go beyond mere technical jargon to engage local stakeholder communities with issues that will affect them. You'd have to bring global warming down from the atmosphere to a personal level. So you might want to talk to people living on the Gulf Coast or in Florida about how rising sea levels will impact their beaches and coastal homes and change their hurricane vulnerabilities; to Californians and Pacific Northwesterners about the consequences of declining mountain snowpack for their drinking water supplies; to those living in the heartland about projected changes to agriculture; to those in the Southwest about increasing risks of wildfire and drought; and so on. Such a project actually did exist once, though you might not have heard of it. It went by the common name of the U.S. National Assessment, though the final product's official title--Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change--was much wordier. But industry groups, conservative think tanks, and global warming skeptics despised the National Assessment like nothing else in the world of climate science (which is really saying something). They suspected a nefarious plot by then-Vice President Al Gore to build a broader constituency for action on global warming. And after they gave the report their thumbs down, their gladiatorial champion--the Bush administration--lopped off its head. Not only did the White House undermine the first incarnation of the assessment, released in 2000, but rather than following up on this pioneering experiment in a serious way, it censored mere references to it out of subsequent government climate science documents. Then the administration tried to cover its tracks by replacing a required follow-up assessment with what amounted to a scientific sham. In the context of repeated scandals over the relationship between the Bush government and science, the story of the National Assessment often has been overlooked. Other tales may have had more immediate flair--former industry lobbyists revising climate reports and then getting jobs with ExxonMobil, for example, or top scientists (including the former surgeon general) going public to announce they've been gagged. Yet in the words of global warming whistleblower Rick Piltz, the deepsixing of the National Assessment remains "the central climate science scandal of the administration." If we wish to grasp the true consequences of the so-called war on science--and to learn how it has rendered us, during a crucial period of six to eight years, unable to grapple with what is arguably our biggest national and global problem--learning about the National Assessment's suppression is critical. And as climate change continues apace, and may be moving much faster than expected, we need an updated assessment now more than ever.

That's just the beginning of a very long article. You can read the full piece here.

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