ScienceDebate.org is an organization that, for years now, has been pushing to get the candidates running for President of the United States to engage in a debate over science policy, just as they debate foreign policy, or economic policy, etc.
And, ScienceDebate.org has had some success. Some of the candidates, at the primary level, have engaged in such a debate, and at the national level, some of the candidates have contributed written answers to citizen-generated questions about science policy.
And now, they’ve done it again.
The four main candidates (two actual main candidates and two “third party” candidates) were provided with several science policy related questions. Three of the candidates have provided answers.
The entire project is to be found HERE. There are 20 questions.
I’m still going through them. If you have comments on any, please post them, I’d love to hear what you think.
Personally, I think Trump’s answer on climate change was probably written by Bjorn Lomborg. Or, cribbed form something he wrote.
(I suppose someone should be running these answers through a plagiarism checker???)
Gary Johnson apparently has nothing to say about science policy. That makes sense. He’s a Libertarian, and Libertarians don’t believe in science policy.
Jill Stein gave an interesting answer on Vaccines.
Trump wants to stop the inflow of opioids into the United States. He may not have understood the question.
The word “wall” does not appear among the answers, though Immigration is asked about.
I had previously mentioned the ScienceDebate ad with the kids asking for a science debate. Here is some local coverage on the story (the ad was made here in the Twin Cities) including an interview with one of the stars, Susanlyn Singroy. (I don’t agree with everything she said, but what the heck, she’s asking for a debate, and is up for it!)
Remember the Democratic and Republican party debates that were held just before that major international meeting about climate change, participated in by every country in the world? Of course you do. Do you remember the candidates’ responses to the questions about climate change posed during those debates? No, you don’t. Not a single question about climate change, or any other big science issue, was asked.
When we think about the big science issues, climate change is often one of the main topics that comes first to mind. But there are many other big science issues that should be more openly and full discussed by candidates in the ongoing US Presidential election, as well as other state and federal elections. ScienceDebate.org has been collecting questions by interested citizens. Here is a sampling (go HERE to see all the questions and submit your own).:
How would you reduce our pollution from fossil fuel combustion and encourage more American jobs in energy efficiency?
Will you support science-based tobacco product regulation, and so stop FDA ban of e-cigarettes, a low-risk alternative that reduces smoking?
How should we manage global population growth?
What policies will you put forth to ensure scientific literacy?
How do we ensure adequate clean fresh water for the US in years to come?
Will you support substantial funding for high capacity energy storage and enhanced long distance electrical grids?
Will you support a person’s right to obtain genetic information about them that has been collected by government funded projects?
Will you bring back the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)?
How would you address the world’s aging nuclear arsenals?
What steps will you take in dealing with the threat that current agricultural monocultures pose towards biodiversity?
What policies will best ensure that America remains a world leader in innovation?
How would you ensure that government policy is based on evidence and science rather than ideology or personal opinion?
What actions would you support to enforce vaccinations in the interest of public health, and when should exemptions be allowed?
Do you believe that basic research should receive government funding, or should it all be left to the private sector?
Given states’ rights, do you justify a ban on stem cell research in states that support it?
We lack cyber security, from voting machines to governmental systems. How would you address cyber security?
There is a distinct correlation between “fracking” and increased seismic (earthquake) activity. What are your views on fracking?
How would you make the NIH a more efficient funder of government health efforts?
What steps should the United States take to protect our population from emerging diseases?
What would you as US president do to harden the American electrical grid against severe EMP events?
What Will You Do to Reduce The Human and Economic Costs of Mental Illness?
As Shawn Otto recently pointed out, science is central to a large number of our policy challenges, but there are almost no scientists in Congress (about a half dozen during any given term). In fact, we don’t necessarily need a lot more scientists in Congress, but we do need to have science savvy people in elected office. What better way is there to ensure a higher level of science awareness than to make science policy a normal part of our election cycles, through debates, policy statements, and the journalism that covers those elections?
ScienceDebate.Org has been pushing for an actual science debate for a few POTUS elections now. They have had great success in getting their message out … most people have heard of the organization by now. And, there have been some successes in getting the candidates to address science. For example, when President Obama was challenged by Governor Mitt Romney, the two of them produced science policy statements.
This year is different from previous years. For the first time, climate change, one of the big science issues, is part of several national level campaigns. Oddly, the US press seems to be moving very slowly in addressing the fact that more and more citizens are concerned about this and other science issues. But with a bit of a push, the big networks and major journalistic outlets can be convinced to press candidates to address these issues.
Look again at the list of science policy questions above. My impression is that when a lot of people hear about a science debate, they imagine something different, where the candidates are asked science questions, to test their science literacy. That is not what the sciencedebate.org project is about. Candidates for national office, as well as state and local office, are expected to understand economics, crime, international relations, health care, and all sorts of other academic areas. They are not tested on their ability to write the equation for Pareto Efficiency, tactical strategies for dealing with a hostage situation, to speak widely spoken foreign languages, or demonstrate that they can conduct a liver transplant. They are asked about policy, like those science questions listed above. Not only should candidates be able to do that, but the people who are considering voting for them (or not) should have a good idea of how a given candidate will address these issues, or at least, to have evidence that the candidates have more than a vague idea of what these issues entail.
On Wednesday we’ll watch another Republican presidential debate, but how much do you expect to hear about topics like mental health and climate change? Funding for biomedical research and energy? Research innovation and global leadership? Given these are the issues that will impact the way all Americans live for decades to come, why are they so often the exception in debates, rather than the expectation?
ScienceDebat.org has produced a very compelling commercial that makes this point, and if you agree (and you know you do!) please pass this around on the usual social media for people to see. Here it is:
Here is something you should know: “ScienceDebate.org and Research!America, a group that advocates for medical research, commissioned a national poll that showed that 87% of likely voters think the candidates ought to be well-versed on these issues. The group held online exchanges between President Obama and his opponents in 2008 and 2012, each time making nearly a billion media impressions. “This cycle, we’d like to see one on national television,” said the group’s chair, science writer Shawn Otto. ”
The Time Scales of Political and Climate Change Matter
The US is engaged in the laborious process of electing a new leader, who will likely be President for 8 years. Climate change has finally become an issue in US electoral politics. The climate policies of the next US President, and the Congress, will have a direct impact on the climate, because those policies will affect how much fossil carbon is put into the atmosphere over coming decades. So it is vital to consider what the climate may do during the next administration and the longer period that will include that administration’s effective legacy period, more or less the next decade starting now.
There is evidence that the ongoing warming of the planet’s surface is likely accelerate in the near future. Recent decades have seen the Earth’s surface temperatures go up at a relatively slower than average rate compared to earlier decades. The best available science suggests that this rate is about to increase. We can expect a series of mostly record breaking months and years that will add up to an alarmingly warm planet.
(The graphic showing continued global warming through 2015 at the top of the post is from here.)
The recent slowdown in global warming has brought into question the reliability of climate model projections of future temperature change and has led to a vigorous debate over whether this slowdown is the result of naturally occurring, internal variability or forcing external to Earth’s climate system. … we applied a semi-empirical approach that combines climate observations and model simulations to estimate Atlantic- and Pacific-based internal multidecadal variability (termed “AMO” and “PMO,” respectively). Using this method [we show that] competition between a modest positive peak in the AMO and a substantially negative-trending PMO … produce a slowdown or “false pause” in warming of the past decade.
Cyclical changes in the Pacific Ocean have thrown earth’s surface into what may be an unprecedented warming spurt, following a global warming slowdown that lasted about 15 years.
While El Niño is being blamed for an outbreak of floods, storms and unseasonable temperatures across the planet, a much slower-moving cycle of the Pacific Ocean has also been playing a role in record-breaking warmth. The recent effects of both ocean cycles are being amplified by climate change.
Why Does The Rate of Global Warming Vary?
This is pretty complicated, and even those who are on the cutting edge of this research are cautious in making links between their models and the on the ground reality of warming in the near future. The long term rise in surface temperature, which is what we usually refer to when using the term “Global Warming,” is not steady and smooth, but instead, it is rather squiggly. But the ups and downs that accompany the general upward trend are mostly caused by things that are known.
The sun provides the energy to warm the Earth’s surface, and this contribution changes over time, but the sun varies very little in its output, and thus has less influence than other factors. The sun’s energy warms the Earth mainly because our atmosphere contains some greenhouse gasses. The more greenhouse gas the more surface warmth. As humans add greenhouse gas (mainly CO2 released by burning fossil fuel) the surface temperature eventually rises to a higher equilibrium. But the variation in the sun’s strength is hardly observable.
Aerosols, also known as dust or in some cases pollution (or airborne particles) can reduce the surface temperature by intercepting some of the Sun’s energy on its way to the surface (I oversimplify). These aerosols come mainly from industrial pollution and volcanoes. The addition of a large amount of aerosol into the atmosphere by a major volcanic eruption can have a relative cooling effect but one that lasts for a short duration, because the dust eventually settles.
There are many other important factors. Changes in land use patterns that cause changes in effectiveness of carbon sinks – places where atmospheric carbon (mainly CO2) is trapped in solid form by biological systems – increase atmospheric CO2. Melting glacial ice takes up heat and influences surface temperatures. And so on.
A famous, and now perhaps infamous, example of this interaction between ocean and air is the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Here’s the simple version (see here for more detail). The equatorial Pacific’s surface is constantly being warmed by the sun. The surface waters are usually blown towards the west by trade winds. (Those trade winds are caused in part by the rotation of the Earth, and in part by the ongoing redistribution of excess tropical heat towards the poles). This causes warm water to move west, where it is potentially subducted into the ocean, moving heat into the sea. That heat eventually may work its way out of the ocean through various currents.
During many years, the ins and the outs are similar. During some years, La Niña years, the amount of heat moving into the ocean is larger, which can cause a small cooling influence on the planet. Every now and then, the reverse happens. This involves complicated changes in trade winds and ocean currents. A good chunk of the heat that has been stored in the Pacific now emerges and is added very abruptly, over a period of several months, to the atmosphere. This is an El Niño event. We are at this moment experiencing one of the strongest El Niño events ever recorded, possibly the strongest (we won’t know until it has been going a while longer.)
ENSO is one, in fact the biggest, example of atmosphere-ocean interaction that influences surface temperatures. But, ENSO is only one part of the interaction between the Pacific and the atmosphere. There is also a phenomenon known as the Pacific Multidecadal Oscillation (PMO). For its part, the Atlantic has the AMO, a similar system. These phenomena are characterized by a general transfer of heat either into or out of the ocean, with several years in a row seeing more heat move into the ocean, followed by several years in a row of more heat moving out of the ocean.
Though ENSO and the PMO are distinct processes, they may be related. I asked climate scientist Michael Mann if he views El Nino as part of the larger scale system of PMO, or if El Niño essentially rides on top of, or acts independently from PMO. He told me, “I would say the latter. At some level, the PMO really describes the long-term changes in the frequency and magnitude of El Niño and La Niña events, i.e. change in the behavior of ENSO on multidecadal timescales, and it will appear as multidecadal oscillation with an ENSO-like signature with some modifications due to the fact that certain processes, like gyre-advection and subduction of water masses, act on longer timescales and do they are seen with the PMO bot not El Niño or La Niña.”
Here, the surface temperature anomaly is shown from the late 1960s to the present. The annual values are classified into years during which ENSO was neutral, or neutral with volcanic influences, La Nina years, and El Niño years with or without volcanoes. A separate trend line is shown for years that should be relatively warm (El Niño), relatively cool (La Niña), and years that should be about average.
The influence of the PMO is also apparent.
This graphic shows the measurement of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the surface temperature anomalies. The data are averaged out over a two year cycle (otherwise the PDO would be way too squiggly to be useful visually). Notice that during periods when the PDO is positive (adding heat to the atmosphere) there tends to be a stronger upward trend of surface temperature, and when the PDO is negative, the surface temperature rises more slowly. Remember, a lot of other factors, such as aerosols, are influencing the temperature line, so this relationship is quite imperfect.
Also notice that both lines trend dramatically upward near the end of the graph. This reflects the last couple of years (including right now) of dramatically increasing surface temperatures, and an apparent positive shift in the PDO. Just as interesting is the negative PDO associated with a reduced upward trend in the surface temperatures, fondly known by many as the “Hiatus” or “Pause” in global warming, during the first part of the 20th century. Indeed, it is likely that this slowdown (not really a pause) in warming is largely a result of a higher rate of excess heat being plowed into the oceans, and less coming back out. This is also a period during which the ENSO system produced no strong El Niños.
But the PDO is, as noted, part of a larger phenomenon of ocean-atmosphere interaction. The study noted above by Steinman, Mann, and Miller takes a broad view of these oscillations and their impact on climate. In RealClimate, Mann writes,
We focused on the Northern Hemisphere and the role played by two climate oscillations known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation or “AMO” … and the … Pacific Multidecadal Oscillation or “PMO”… The oscillation in Northern Hemisphere average temperatures (which we term the Northern Hemisphere Multidecadal Oscillation or “NMO”) is found to result from a combination of the AMO and PMO.
…Our conclusion that natural cooling in the Pacific is a principal contributor to the recent slowdown in large-scale warming is consistent with some other recent studies…
…the state-of-the-art climate model simulations analyzed in our current study suggest that this phenomenon is a manifestation of purely random, internal oscillations in the climate system.
This finding has potential ramifications for the climate changes we will see in the decades ahead. As we note in the last line of our article,
Given the pattern of past historical variation, this trend will likely reverse with internal variability, instead adding to anthropogenic warming in the coming decades.
That is perhaps the most worrying implication of our study, for it implies that the “false pause” may simply have been a cause for false complacency, when it comes to averting dangerous climate change.
What Will Global Warming Do During The Next Decade?
Have political leaders and representatives been lukewarm on climate change over recent years in part because the climate change itself has been less dramatic than it could be? And, conversely, is it the case that the next couple of decades will see a reverse in both? I asked Michael Mann if his research indicated that the indicators such as the PMO, AMO, or the derived NMO, show that the oceans are about to contribute to a speedup in warming. He told me, “…both PMO and AMO contribute to NMO, but in recent decades PMO has been the dominant player, and yes, I would expect to see the recent turn toward El Nino-like conditions and enhanced hemispheric/global warming as an apparent upturn in the NMO, though it is always difficult if not impossible to diagnose true change in the low-frequency signal right at the end of a time series.”
Let’s have a closer look at the influence of the PDO on global surface temperatures. Since the human influence on the atmosphere has grown over time, we want to focus on more recent decades when the input of additional greenhouse gases had already risen to a high level. This graphic shows the NASA GISS surface temperature anomaly values (the dots) from 1980 to the present, but with some trend lines added in.
(The NOAA GISS data are a running 12 month mean using the monthly data. Note that the trend lines added to this graph are meant to visually underscore the differences between time periods in the overall trend, and have no special statistical value.)
The black dots and the curvy trend line to the left represent a period of time when the PDO was positive, but also includes a depression in surface temperature because of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. I made the trend line a “second order polynomial” instead of a regular straight line. A polynomial equation can capture internal curviness of a series of data.
(A polynomial equation that is of the same “order” as the number of points in the data set would, theoretically, zig and zag back and forth to account for each data point’s position which would be absurd. One must be careful with poylnomials. But a second order polynomial can honestly reflect a modest curviness in a series of data, and in this case, helps the line do its job at visually presenting a short term pattern.)
The second series of data, in blue, shows a period of mostly negative PMO, again, with a second order polynomial line drawn on it. This is the period of time that includes the so-called “hiatus” in global warming, when the upward trend of increasing surface temperature was somewhat attenuated. That attenuation was probably caused by a number of factors, and in fact, at least one of those factors had to do with inadequacies of the data itself, in that the measurements fail to account for extreme warming in the Arctic and parts of Africa. But the negative PMO, and likely, according to Steinmann, Mann and Miller, a larger scale relationship between atmosphere and ocean, seem to have somewhat flattened out the line.
But then we come to the third part of the data, in red. The ocean-atmosphere relationship has switched the other way. The PMO has been positive since the last part of 2013, and over a smaller and more recent time frame, we have been experiencing a strong El Niño.
This graphic does a nice job showing how short and medium term upward and downward trends eventually cancel out to produce a single upward trend in global surface temperature. Very short term shifts such as a given El Niño event or a given Volcanic eruption cause the most obvious squiggles. Somewhat longer term, multi-decade trends such as the PDO cause longer parts of the series of measurements to rise more or less quickly. But over nearly 40 years shown here, and longer periods, all the ups and downs average out to a single trend that can be reliably projected for a reasonable period of time.
Will More Rapid Global Warming Spur A More Effective Policy Response?
These ups and downs in the rate of warming are not important to the long term trend, but they are important because of their immediate effects on weather. And that is all that should matter. But these short and medium term trends, as well as even more immediate events such as individual storms, take on a greater importance that has nothing to do with the science of climate change itself. These changes affect the way politicians, advocates, and the general public, regard climate change, and serve to motivate or attenuate action on one side of the false debate or another.
We have known enough about climate change and its causes to have started the shift from fossil fuels to alternative strategies for producing energy long before 1980, but have in fact done very little to solve this problem. Initially, climate change seemed more like a thing of the future, and in fact, had relatively little impact on the most influential and powerful nations and people. Disruptions of weather patterns started to become more apparent around or just before 1980, but for the next few decades anti-science forces were well organized, and their efforts were enhanced, at the beginning of the 21st century, by the unthinking and unknowing process of air-sea interactions that reduced the rate of surface temperature increase even while weather patterns continued to become more and more chaotic.
But the truth is, a widespread flood in the American bottomlands defeats a snowball in the hands of a contrarian Senator. Eventually, more and more people in the US have been affected by inclement weather, and the frequency with which destructive storms of various kinds hammer the same subpopulation again and again has gone up. The symbolic snowball melts under the cold hard stare of voters who wonder how they are going to rebuild their lives after floods, severe storms, and droughts have taken away their property, in some cases their loved ones, and raised their insurance rates.
So the question emerges, will the next decade or so be a period of increased, or of attenuated, motivation from Mother Nature to act on climate change? The rational actor will act now, because we know that the greenhouse gas we pump into the atmosphere today changes the climate for decades to come. The reactionary actor with little capability or interest in thinking long term (i.e. most people) will be mollified by a decade with few severe storms, not much flooding, a seemingly secure food supply, and a snowball or two.
I left the projection of the future as a single estimate based on the past several decades (all the data shown on the graph). I could have imposed a more upward trending line, maybe a nice curve like these polynomials show, as an extension to the blue line. But since the graphic is going out a couple more decades, and the ups and downs average out over several decades, I think it is fair enough to use the linear projection shown by the red dotted line.
I’m not actually making a prediction of future global surface temperatures here. What I’m showing instead is that two things seem to be true. First, long term (over decades) global warming has happened and will likely to continue at about the same pace for a while. This has been going on long enough that by now we should viscerally understand that the squiggles are misleading. Second, the last couple of decades have been a period of reduced warming, but that period is likely over, and we are likely to experience an increased rate of warming.
Will surface temperatures during the term of the next POTUS squiggle about mostly above that red dotted line on this graph, or will those temperatures squiggle up and down above and below the line, or even below it? Based on the best available science, that first choice is most likely. Whomever ends up being POTUS, and the corresponding Congress, will be enacting (or failing to enact) policy during a period of surface temperature increasing at a rate higher than we have in recent years.
A vitally important known unknown, is what will the effects of such a rise in surface temperature be. We have various levels of confidence that storminess, changes in the distribution of rainfall, drought, and through the melting of glacial ice, sea level rise, are all important forms of climate disruption we are currently experiencing, and we should expect more of the same. The unknown is whether or not we should expect a dramatic acceleration of these changes in the short term future.
How will the insurance industry address an increase in widespread catastrophic damage caused by storms and floods? Will the government have to underwrite future losses, or will disaster insurance simply become something we can’t have? Will there be damage to our food production system that ultimately results in less certainly in the food supply, and how will we deal with that? The well known “reugee crisis” is a climate refugee crisis. But it may be a small one compared to what could happen in the future. Will we need to restrict development in mountain areas more subject to fires, and withdraw settlement from low lying areas along major rivers? How will we address more widespread and more severe killer heat waves?
The battle to preserve the use of fossil fuels exists at the state level in the US. Should we have a national effort to stop the legislatures in red states from putting the kibosh on local development of clean energy sources, either by energy utilities or individual home owners?
Sea level rise has already had several negative effects, but it is also is a longer term issue, and is perhaps among the most serious consequences of human greenhouse gas pollution. At some point, American politicians in some areas will be faced not with the question, “Will this or that Congressional district be represented by a Democrat or a Republican,” but rather, “Where the people who lived in this district go now that the sea is taking it?”
Over time, I think the social and political will to address climate change has grown, though very slowly. It might seem that the effects of climate change right now are fairly severe, with floods and fires and all that being more common. But while these effects are real and important, they have been minor compared to what the future is likely to bring. The anemic but positive growth of willingness to act has occurred in a political and physical climate that is less than nurturing of dramatic and effective action.
Whoever is elected president this time around, and the Congress, will serve during a period when the people’s will to act will transform from that inspired by activists pushing for change, to outcries of a larger number of desperate and suffering newcomers to the rational side of the climate change discussion.
Expect a sea change in the politics of science policy.
It is debate season for the US presidential race. As usual, science is being viewed as a debating point very differently by the two parties, at least so far. The Democratic candidates, yet to actually debate, are currently engaged in dealing policy statements about important scientific issues such as climate change. In previous election cycles, science was brought into Republican primary debates to see which candidate could make the most anti-science statements. This year it is a bit different, with climate science in particular, and one’s ability to say something intelligent-sounding about it, being a factor, though still to a very small degree.
You are probably aware of ScienceDebate.org, which has been trying to get science on the table as a standard debating topic worthy of its own entire debate among the candidates. ScienceDebate.org has commissioned a poll asking American voters what they think about science and the candidates. You can read the poll results here.
I created some graphs that re-display the poll’s results in a slightly different, and simpler, way than the original poll.
First is a set of questions about science-based challenges, the importance of science, the relationship between science and policy, and the role of journalists in advancing this conversation. I simplified the results of five distinct statements to indicate simple agreement (strong or not) vs. disagreement, across political affiliation. The result is simple. A large majority of people across all political affiliations agree with al of the statements. Variation across the statements, or across the political parties, is unimpressive. Americans, across the board, are on board with science, with policy makers dealing with science, and want journalists to address this.
The second graphic simplified the results across two questions about the importance of members of Congress understanding science and the importance of a science debate. Again, the vast majority of Americans, according to this scientific poll, agree on the importance of these things.
The Science Debate Project, co-founded by my friend Shawn Otto of Minnesota, has been trying to get candidates for the office of President to engage in a public debate about science. There has been resistance to that idea, but at least, Obama and Romney were willing to answer a set of questions related to science and science policy. The questions with the President’s and Romney’s answers are HERE. A press release regarding the project is here.
Romney wants to improve education by allowing parents to send their kids to charter and private schools, and he wants to fund that. He is not sure that Anthropogenic Climate Change is real or important, though he admits that the planet may actually be getting warmer. He wants to enhance innovation by reducing taxes for the rich and demanding more of lower paid workers. Obama’s position on the various issues is more well thought out, more likely to work, and more succinctly worded.
I am very disappointed that no one thought to ask the chair what it thought, but maybe later in the election season that can happen.
For all those who think, if there are any of you left, that the two main political parties in the US are the same, read this and report back.
Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America” was officially released last night in Minneapolis with appropriate fanfare and celebration. Everyone who gets to know Shawn likes him from the start and quickly learns to respect him and eventually hold him with a certain amount of well-earned awe, and like any book, we’ve all seen this one coming for quite some time. (I have an old pre-release copy in which every page is “00” but, surprisingly, the front cover is just like the final form.)
Shawn gave a talk at the release party, but since he is held in such high esteem, there was a problem deciding how he would be introduced. A book as important as “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America” which examines the increasingly insignificant role science plays in the policy making process, written by the much beloved Shaw Otto would require an equally important and beloved personage to make the introduction. And, if such a person were to go on stage to introduce Shawn, there would have to be a fairly significant and widely respected person to introduce that person as well. And so on and so forth. I hear there were several meetings about this, and the UN was called in briefly to settle the evening’s program, and a solution was worked out that was more than acceptable. Continue reading Science is always nonpartisan, but it is always political: Fool Me Twice→