America’s Climate Change Policy Choices

Written by: Jamie Napoli

“It may be that the nation did not elect its first woman president last year,” said National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Deputy Executive Director for Communications Ann Merchant, “but we did, and we are very proud of that fact.” Ann’s opening remarks kicked off an evening featuring Marcia McNutt, the first female president of the NAS.

Hosted by The Science & Entertainment Exchange at the home of vice-chairs Jerry and Janet Zucker, the salon put a spotlight on climate change: what role will the NAS play in advancing evidence-based policy choices and how storytellers can spread awareness in a political environment that is apathetic to the dangers of a changing climate.

Dr. McNutt’s election as the NAS president in July 2016 highlights a career dedicated to the study of our planet and a sustainable future. Prior to this, Dr. McNutt served as editor-in-chief of the academic journal Science, and director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

She was joined on stage by Bruce H. Robison, senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and Richard Alley, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences and associate of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Dr. Alley has been a member of the NAS since 2008.

Throughout the discussion, there was no shortage of evidence that Earth’s changing climate has reached a critical condition. Dr. McNutt pointed to the fact that the 12 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. The probability of this happening by chance is astronomically slim, whereas a more reasonable explanation is that the climate baseline has been reset.

Dr. Robison described the effect warmer oceans has on sea life, particularly because warmer water tends to hold less oxygen than cold water. “Animals are being displaced, sometimes geographically, sometimes vertically,” explained Dr. Robison. As certain populations move into new habitats, the food chain is altered, in some cases to catastrophic results.

Dr. Alley presented slides documenting the collapse of towering ice cliffs in Greenland. As glaciers throughout the world continue to collapse and melt, the threat they pose goes far beyond the ecological. “If you are fundamentally concerned with the health of the U.S. economy, you absolutely want to be concerned with this,” said Dr. Alley. “If you are deeply concerned with national security, you want to deal with this rather than ignore it. If you’re interested in ethics, the environment, whatever—everything is headed in the same direction now.”

There was consensus among the scientists that the greatest threat facing our planet is an apathetic public. Dr. McNutt described her shock at learning that many members of the U.S. Congress are climate change skeptics. She hesitated to point fingers, however, because “in most cases they were simply reflecting the attitudes of their constituents.”

Why are so many Americans skeptical about climate change?

Dr. McNutt offered a range of possible explanations from the difficulty of recognizing change that occurs at such a slow rate to the lack of a moral revulsion at the human behavior that causes climate change. Dr. McNutt noted that most people have an easier time identifying threats with a recognizable face. In the case of climate change, however, “the threat is us.” For every problem facing our planet that was discussed during the course of the evening, speakers and guests alike offered solutions.

Dr. McNutt recommended that scientists and creatives work together to change the public perception of climate change. “We have to connect climate change solutions to things that also help people—the people who are voting with their pocketbooks and the realities of the fact that they don’t have jobs, and therefore it is so far down on their list.”

Moe Vela, former director of Administration for Vice President Joe Biden, built on Dr. McNutt’s argument. “We have to personalize climate change,” said Mr. Vela, drawing a comparison between efforts by the LGBT community to put a face to the LGBT cause and the fight to spread awareness about global warming. “It’s about how it affects people’s pocketbooks, but also how it affects them personally.”

“It’s about subliminally, in our storytelling, making it normal and making it cool to be sustainable,” said writer Kimberly Barrante, on how Hollywood can impact the fight against climate change. “It’s showing scientists as good people and showing the press as good people and putting them in a position of trust.”

As the discussion turned to the cost of building renewable energy systems, Dr. Alley was quick to assert that saving our planet will not come at the expense of our economy. “We keep hearing about creating jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Dr. Alley. “This is the best way to ensure jobs.”

From Jerry Zucker’s hilarious opening remarks to a rousing Q&A session that focused on the steps each individual can take to improve the planet, the evening was suffused with a strong sense of optimism.

Climate change may be the greatest challenge facing us, but it is not hopeless. “We’re going to solve it,” Dr. Alley stated confidently. “We’re going to build a renewable energy system because we have to.”

The statements and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the event participants and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for this event or of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.