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See Inside February 2011

The Bright Side of Gridlock: Republicans, Democrats and Science

How to move the science agenda forward in the next two years



Illustration by John Cuneo

Many politicians swept into office in the last election in Congress and the state legislatures have shown little understanding of, or respect for, the enterprise of science. A number of the Republicans now in leadership positions in the House of Representatives, for instance, have expressed skepticism about climate change and are planning to use the subpoena powers of their office to put climate scientists on the defensive and portray efforts to curb carbon emissions as a job killer.

The prospect of two years of gridlock and troublemaking is worrying. But even as the nation descends into a period of antiscience populism, there may still be opportunities to begin shaping the science agenda for the next political cycle and perhaps get some useful things done in this one.

Some important measures, of course, are off the table for the near future: cap and trade, a carbon tax, and other comprehensive efforts to deal nationally with global warming. That, however, does not rule out smaller market-based bipartisan efforts that could reduce our energy use and take steps toward a clean energy economy. The next Congress might well consider policies that encourage energy efficiency, incentives for the production of renewable technologies, and other tax-credit measures because these create jobs in many of their home districts.

Meanwhile states and local governments are already marching forward. On November 3 California voters defeated Proposition 23, which would have effectively suspended California’s effort to cut emissions to 1990 levels within 10 years. Proposition 23 was defeated in part by showing that reduced emissions could increase employment. As the world’s eighth-largest economy, California will propagate proven emission-cutting products and policies that will seem commonplace when the nation is ready to take up the issue again.

California isn’t alone. More than 1,000 mayors have signed on to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted renewable electricity standards. The Western Climate Initiative, which includes seven states and four Canadian provinces, has negotiated a regional cap-and-trade program. Scientists are designing energy generation technology for remote regions and communities.

Even dark clouds can have silver linings. Some congressional leaders have already started beating the drums for sweeping investigations of the Obama administration and mainstream science. Climate scientists, in particular, may be summoned before House committees to defend their work. Such hearings could back­fire, however, by giving scientists a forum for making their voices heard. A calm, well-reasoned argument, based on firm evidence, could do much to persuade people that climate science is solid and all but universally accepted by legitimate researchers. 

Republicans and Democrats may still be able to work together. Incoming freshman representatives may be more sympathetic to scientific issues once they face the task of governing. The need for a record of accomplishments for the 2012 elections may open other doors for legislative change. And the Republican Pledge to America, which advocates transparency in government, leaves open the possibility for progress on protecting whistleblowers who report abuses of science in federal decision making.

President Barack Obama still wields executive power. He can require emissions cuts from motor vehicles, push for developing solar plants on public lands, protect the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate green­house gases and move quickly to implement his directive on restoring scientific integrity to federal policy making.

Progress won’t be easy. It will require the persistent and energetic engagement of the scientific community. Many scientists and scientific societies are focused too narrowly on shrinking budgets and spend precious little energy on other science-related issues, even in the face of withering, well-funded attacks. This silence, and the ubiquity of the attacks, has left the public confused. Scientists and citizens must respond with courage and clarity.

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