By Bill Chameides

How a recent report on climate change put me toe to toe with Congressional climate refudiaters.

Released on May 12th and representing the culmination of two years' work and the study of decades of research, "America's Climate Choices" was written by a group of scientists formed at the behest of Congress to offer advice on how to respond to global warming. In the wake of its release, the report by the National Academies' Committee on America's Climate Choices has engendered some interesting repartee.

The report reached three major conclusions:

  • Climate change is occurring, is very likely primarily due to human activities, and poses serious risks;
  • Because of these risks, there is a "pressing" need for action to lower greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change; and
  • Because there will always be uncertainties, the wisest course of action is one that attempts to manage risks using a flexible, iterative approach that allows for the incorporation of new information.

The first two points -- clearly more in the re-affirming as opposed to the plowing-new-ground category -- were important in our opinion in light of the hits climate science has taken in the last few years.

Back and Forth in the Media

This re-affirming aspect of the report led to an interesting, indirect exchange between Representative Joe Barton (R-TX) and the Washington Post's editorial board. The congressman dismissed the report for its lack of anything "substantive" or new, and the Washington Post, agreeing on the "nothing new" front, responded that, true, "none of this is news. But it is newsworthy, sadly, because ... the U.S. government ... [has] moved so far from reality and responsibility in their approach to climate change."

There was also a little tete-a-tete between USA Today's editorial board and lead climate refudiater Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma (which, along with Texas, is a top oil-producing state).

A Pas de Deux in the Nation's Capitol

As my co-authors and I made the rounds last week briefing Congress and the administration on our report, I got a taste of the banter around climate science that now passes for debate in our nation's capitol. The highlight of this experience began with this chestnut from a legislative aid in the Senate:

"All this is well and good, but how do I respond to my colleagues who flatly say that all climate scientists are frauds and are not be believed?"

Yikes, what a question. How do you respond to something like that when you're a climate scientist? I rummaged through my mind and came up with three possibilities.

I could take umbrage ...

As a climate scientist, I find such statements not worthy of a reply. It seems to me that our nation has become too agile at trotting out baseless, personal attacks -- be they affronts to professional integrity, for example, or the impugning of one's citizenship.

We owe it to ourselves and our country to quash such nonsense so that we can focus on real, difficult issues. We should refuse to allow people to use these tactics to obscure the discourse we need to have on important challenges. And it should not fall to climate scientists to defend themselves against scurrilous attacks; it should be the duty of all responsible citizens.

Or, I could match absurdity for absurdity ...

Frauds? Maybe so. But you know about those climate climate deniers, right? It's been established that they're not Americans. They're not even humans. Heck, they're not even animals. That's right, they're vegetables! Pod people sent by aliens from another planet to inhabit the Earth, snatch our nation's best minds and bodies, and use their newfound personas to prevent us from taking action on climate change. The aliens, they're smart, they know that our inaction will lay the groundwork for an all-out pod-people invasion and ultimately spell humanity's demise. So say what you will about climate scientists, but be careful. At least we've got red blood flowing in our veins.

Or, I could adopt a more measured, rational response.

Refudiaters' claims of "fraud" and "hoaxes" show a complete lack of understanding of the scientific process and the motivation that drives scientists.

In case you didn't know, scientists do not hang around in back rooms plotting to fool the public. Our aim in life is not to confirm existing dogma; we do not dream of writing paper after paper confirming what everyone already knows.

On the contrary, our driving ambition is to upset the apple cart, to prove everyone wrong (when that is the case), to revolutionize scientific thinking so profoundly that maybe we get an equation or a principle named after us, assuring years and years of ample research funding.

If I (and, I daresay, the majority of my colleagues) could prove that the climate is not changing or that human activities were not a cause or that the risks were minimal, we would do it in a heartbeat and our reputations would be made. Suffice it to say no one has been able to do so in a scientifically rigorous way because the evidence points in the other direction.

Folks, the science is not the issue. We need to start a new conversation on climate change -- on the risks we face and the choices we will make as a nation to confront those risks. It is the conclusion of our report that the time to begin that conversation in earnest has arrived.

So those were my three ideas. But the clock was ticking, the people at the briefing were waiting, all eyes were on me and I had to choose. Which one do you think I went with?