Climate change: moving from science to policy


Last Tuesday I was speeding through the electric-green Montana landscape and hoping for radio or digital cellular reception to tap into the news about President Obama’s climate plan. I was frustrated that I couldn’t hear the story, much less write about it. But it was more than enough consolation to be heading to Missoula to start a four-day journalism fellowship, to learn about environmental news on the ground instead of from behind a computer screen.

The Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources delivered me, along with 17 other reporters, to the doorsteps of a range of issues affecting one of the most intact ecosystems in the U.S. Traveling by bus, we dropped in on an invasive trout management debate at Flathead Lake, the Confederated Salish-Kootenai Tribes preparing to take over a hydroelectric dam, ranchers welcoming large predators on the landscape, the Blackfeet Nation weighing oil and gas development on the Rocky Mountain Front, and forest and fire management, to name a handful. The "Crown of the Continent" road trip ended in Glacier National Park where climate scientists stood in front of contracting ice and described how rising temperatures are changing a region where there is so much to lose.

Steve Running speaking to journalists in Glacier National Park, photo by the author.

One of the researchers was Steve Running, a University of Montana professor who served on the 4th Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. His laboratory specializes in taking a big-picture look at the planet, using satellites to learn how climate, plants, energy, water and carbon interact. Running joined our group after a camping trip in Glacier National Park, and I snagged an impromptu ride in his kayak-laden rig to see what he’s been thinking about climate news and climate science.


High Country News: Do you find yourself considering climate policy more often now?

Steve Running: Yeah, way more. I’m a chapter author on the National Climate Assessment right now and more and more, the science—I hate to say—it’s completely done. The science is pretty well in the bag and we just keep adding more points on every graph.

So we’re getting to where the discussion really is all about policy and what are we going to do? What’s really unfortunate is that we can’t have an adult discussion with our political leaders. Now we have to go around Congress—that’s what Obama did on Tuesday. They specifically identified things they could do from current legislative and regulatory authority so they don’t have to take anything in front of Congress. And I think that was a necessary pragmatic strategy, but it doesn’t speak very highly of Congress.

Of course when I go overseas the rest of the countries just shake their heads. They say, “What is your problem over there?”

HCN: What else do you see in climate policy that’s striking to you?

SR: While these politicians are basically stonewalling all of this, the agencies to more or less a degree of enthusiasm are quite active (on climate change issues). Some agencies like the Department of Energy and NASA are thick into climate science. I’ve been quite impressed with the National Park Service. They are making this a serious part of their message now. They are also trying to get their own activities to have as small a carbon footprint as they can. Five years ago I didn’t hear them talking much about this, they had recycling bins out and that was about it. The Forest Service also has a big climate change-planning program.

Probably the biggest thing that’s hitting the Forest Service is wildfire issues—the increased dynamics of the fires and the fact that the price tag for firefighting is just huge. It’s a political football because there’s just so much money involved in it.

HCN: What have you been thinking about during recent fire seasons?

SR: I try to explain to all of my Montana audiences the big vulnerabilities based around the water balance and the aridification of our climate and our landscape. If you have a landscape that runs out of water that’s very fundamental. The trajectory that we see now is that precipitation is staying about the same but temperatures are going up, and higher temperatures evaporate more water, which means that you've just aridified your water balance.

We’re just seeing this progressive tick of our seasonality away from winter and towards summer. And of course when everything dries out, that’s when the fires start, when the droughts start, when you lose all of your grazing grass.

HCN: What do you think about the media’s coverage of climate change lately?

SR: We complained that the media was playing this game of getting both sides of the story and we really criticized them heavily for that back around ’05, ’06 and ’07. I think they basically got that this isn’t a 50/50 opinion match, that this is fact versus bullshit. We hammered on the journalism industry for a couple of years about that and I think it has primarily taken that to heart.

I really think now that with the political stalemate there is not much to say. Remember that in the entire presidential campaign that this topic wasn’t brought up. In September I was in a think tank where a bunch of politicos from Washington D.C. met with us scientists, trying to craft questions that would go into the presidential debate. They felt that if we could come up with some tight solid questions that they’d be able to get at least one of them into one of the debates. But there wasn’t one!

It’s a topic that’s just been political dead meat for a couple years in Washington. Maybe what Obama is doing will rattle it loose. The biggest thing by far is to get the mechanisms in place to close out all of the old coal-fired power plants. They’ve been grandfathered along for a long time now. Of course the Supreme Court decision that carbon dioxide could be regulated under the Clean Air Act was the final go signal that the EPA has the authority to do it.

HCN: What do you think about the importance of Keystone XL, since President Obama mentioned it in his speech?

SR: It’s certainly using some of the dirtiest oil sources that we have. It’s certainly something that I hope doesn’t happen. But when I look at political choices, I want to shut down coal way more than I want to shut down Keystone XL. And if I’m going to put whatever political muscle I have behind something, it’s going to be to hammer away on coal. I just don’t say much about Keystone XL and people ask me about it all the time. I don’t call it out the way I call out the coal industry.

I am speaking more pointedly than I did three or four years ago. Before, I spoke more generally about the overall fossil fuel problem and now I’m talking more specifically about coal. I am also getting into some more kinds of science policy.

HCN: What kinds of science policy are you looking at?

SR: We’re looking at bioenergy capacity (growing crops, like grasses, for fuel). I started reading papers where energy economists extrapolated the energy mix of the future and they had these huge numbers for bioenergy. Since (my lab) computes the primary production of the whole world (basically, global plant growth), I finally realized that might have some bearing on how much bioenergy might be producible.

It turns out that we only see maybe a quarter of the capacity that these energy economists seem to be claiming. We still don’t think of ourselves as bioenergy specialists. But we want these analysts to be using the right numbers. And our planet just can’t grow that much (energy), sorry.

HCN: Do you enjoy policy as much as you enjoy science?

SR: You reach an age where you’ve published enough papers and you start asking instead, “Does any of my science matter to the rest of the world?” Then you start to say that maybe this is the final translation of a 40-year career of pure science. Maybe the last half dozen years turn out to be about “this is why this science matters, folks.”

HCN: Are there problems like that that you’d still like to solve?

SR: The other thing that I want to nail down more formally is this whole idea of how much we can say clearly that the West is aridifying. That changes everything we see, that changes all the management that everybody would be doing. I see journalists, and policymakers when they talk about the climate projections of the future, they say it's going to be two degrees warmer with ‘x’ percent more precipitation, because that’s what comes out of the GCMs (climate models). But my point is that it’s the net integration of those two that defines aridity. The things I’m telling you are not news to any good hydrometeorologist in the West. But the correct packaging of this so the public gets it has not been done yet.

It’s the higher air temperature just drying out the landscape more. One of the factoids I use to illustrate this is that the annual precipitation of Fairbanks and Tucson are identical. So what’s the difference? Temperature.

Sarah Jane Keller is the editorial fellow for High Country News.

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