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Dion-Kirschner: President Trump must acknowledge that scientific consensus on climate change is absolute

Hannah Dion-Kirschner, Columnist

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In 2004, a Harvard professor surveyed 928 randomly-selected scientific publications mentioning the phrase “global climate change.” Of these 928 papers, not one countered the theory that human activity is a major cause of climate change. Thirteen years later, the new White House administration is stressing that the scientific connection between humans and climate change is uncertain.

In the past, President Donald Trump has tweeted that climate change is a “hoax” created by China and “an expensive form of tax.” Although he acknowledged “some connectivity” between human activity and climate change in a November interview, he has since continued to claim that “nobody really knows” whether climate change is occurring or is attributable to humans.

Cabinet members who will influence environmental policy have expressed similar skepticism. Secretary of the Interior nominee Ryan Zinke said in a 2014 campaign debate that global climate change is “not a hoax, but not proven science either.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon, as well as the nominees to head the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy have made the same argument: Climate change may occur in the future, but the science remains inconclusive.

The views of President Trump and his cabinet are already having tangible effects. Within hours of the inauguration on Jan. 21, the White House webpage on climate change was deleted. The following Tuesday, in the wake of a gag order placed on the EPA, the Badlands National Park tweeted facts about climate change, but the tweets were promptly removed. The removal of climate change information from government media sources is an obvious attempt to delegitimize the information.

Presenting climate science as uncertain and therefore illegitimate fundamentally misrepresents the role of uncertainty in science. A researcher’s job requires constant acknowledgement of uncertainty: first questioning existing knowledge, then performing experiments to answer the questions, and publishing whatever conclusions are reached. In order for the scientific process to continue, the researcher must clarify how well-understood their findings are, allowing future researchers to probe the uncertainties and seek out more definitive answers.

Although uncertainty is a natural part of the scientific process, the word “uncertain” can become a crutch for politicians as they attempt to appease both their constituents and powerful lobbies. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2014 report states with “high confidence” that sea levels will rise, “despite the lack of attribution of observed coastal changes.” Though the IPCC’s conclusion is clear, the “despite” could be represented as a fatal caveat rather than the prudent acknowledgement of scientific limitations that it is. Qualifiers like this one are necessary in scientific research to call attention to areas for further investigation, but it is easy to see how they could be spun as a flaw in the research.

Scientists are rarely willing to claim certainty, but after sufficient findings the scientific community can still reach a consensus. So although climate change and its wide-ranging potential impacts may still be imperfectly understood, a Harvard professor was able to find a powerful consensus among scientists, even 13 years ago, that climate change is occurring and humans are the major contributor.

Even while climate models are being refined, it is vital that the scientific consensus on climate change be viewed as fact for the sake of policy decisions. Here, the onus is on both researchers and policymakers. Researchers should continue to carefully articulate uncertainties when communicating within academia, but when communicating scientific consensus to the public and policymakers, they should not shy away from using stronger language. Meanwhile, politicians should dare to choose research evidence over party concerns where virtually all scientists in a field draw the same fundamental conclusion.

Unsettled, unproven and uncertain may be dirty words in politics, but on climate change, the consensus is clear — and, to a politician, “consensus” should be more than enough to justify action.

Hannah Dion-Kirschner is a junior in Weinberg and Bienen. She can be reached at hannahdionkirschner2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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