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Climate change: When science meets politics Guest blogger, Research

Matthew Stepp, an RIT graduate student in public policy, is researching the impacts of a variety of public policy options on transportation and greenhouse gas emissions through a project led by James Winebrake, chair of the department of science, technology and society/public policy.

Today, in the first of two-part guest-blogger series, he discusses the current political debate surrounding global warming and the growing scientific push for stronger policies relating to the topic.

In December, the American Geophysical Union issued a statement titled “Human Impacts on Climate,” which outlined the organization’s recognition of the impacts of global warming and called on the scientific community to further research, educate and communicate its specialized knowledge on the subject with the public and policymakers. Statements such as these have become controversial, not because they are rare—the American Meteorological Society, for example, issued a similar piece earlier in 2007—but because of the “consensus” view they represent.

This situation began to coalesce following the issuance of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report, which presented hard data on the existence of global warming, backed up by expert sources in a variety of disciplines. Interest groups in the fossil fuel industry, climate skeptics and their political counterparts have led a fervent charge to discount global warming findings. For example, Marc Moreno, a minority staffer of the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, misrepresented the dissenting views of American Geophysical Union scientists in an effort to discredit the organization’s findings. In addition, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe has created a list of 400 scientists who, he claims, refute the global warming argument.

While it’s true that not all scientists in the world agree with everything the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the American Geophysical Union or the American Meteorological Society say, it’s important to note that what’s occurring is the unfortunate consequence of the intersection between science and politics. Lists like Sen. Inhofe’s represent what happens when politicians attempt to enter a scientific debate. Reports like those produced by the Intergovernmental Panel are part of the many steps the scientific community takes to understand the theory, uncertainty and future importance of a topic. We as a society do not completely understand the Earth’s climate and climate change, but we do have a considerable amount of information that can be brought to bear in this case. Given this, a large number within the scientific community has become convinced that we are actively and negatively affecting the very environment in which we live.

Next time: What can we do about climate change?


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