When it comes to facing the reality of climate change, the Republican Party, now led by the Trump Administration, has been slipping ever farther from its roots as a champion of American science.
Last week brought further evidence of this disconnect — but it also held out a glimmer of hope that the party's turn away from the U.S. effort in science is not universal.
It was Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt who put climate change back on the front page when, during a CNBC interview, he was asked he about the scientific consensus that CO2 is the driver for global warming. He said:
"I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see."
As a scientist, it's very hard for me to understand how Pruitt could make this kind of statement. Does he really believe his own words? Pruitt only needs to read the reports from his own agency to see exactly where the science, and the scientist, stand.
The only place there is "tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact" of CO2 is among politicians politicizing the science. For the American scientists who actually work in the field, disagreement over the basics of climate change ended around the time Guns and Roses released Sweet Child of Mine (the late 80s). So Pruitt's contention that "we don't know that yet" has nothing to do with the reality the rest of us live in. The uproar following Pruitt's statement was fierce (see this particularly cogent climate science tutorial offered by that hot bed of radical politics The Weather Channel.)
One of the less-noticed criticisms of Pruitt's flight of fancy came from a fellow Republican, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, and that represents a small bright-side of what's going on these days. As Curbelo put it:
"The EPA is tasked with the very responsibility of helping to lower the impact of carbon emissions, and for Mr. Pruitt to assert otherwise without scientific evidence is reckless and unacceptable."
Curbelo represents a district in South Florida. The "boots on the ground" reality of rising sea levels for his constituents helps explain why Curbelo is one of the founders of the Congressional Climate Solutions Caucus. Formed last year by Curbelo and fellow Floridian Democrat Ted Deutch, the Caucus's mission is to "serve as an organization to educate members on economically viable options to reduce climate risk and protect our nation's economy, security, infrastructure, agriculture, water supply and public safety."
Like Noah's Ark, the Caucus adds members two at a time with one member coming from the Republican party and one from the Democratic party. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) are the newest entries, bringing total membership to 28. If those numbers continue to grow, the Caucus may come to hold enough votes to force action on climate change. As Danny Richter, the science director for Citizens' Climate Lobby told Energy and Environment Daily: "If you get 40 Republicans, then you have about the same size as the Freedom Caucus, and I consider that to be a blocking minority within the majority."
A group of elder Republican statesmen have taken their own stand for the integrity of American science and the reality of its hard won results. Led by former Secretary of State James Baker, they've approached the White House with a revenue-neutral carbon tax and dividend plan.
Their work and the appearance of the Climate Solutions Caucus represents a ray of hope. The clock is ticking for us when it comes to the shifting "Earth systems" of atmosphere, oceans, etc. The planet is changing — and it's changing because of our project of civilizations' remarkable success. But climate change will stress that project in ways not likely to be pretty. That's the reality we face — and we need all hands on deck to figure out smart, economically viable ways to navigate the rising waters ahead.
Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4