Science Debate is a group that's working to get political candidates in the United States actually talking publicly about issues of science and technology policy. In 2008, they tried (and failed) to get Barak Obama and John McCain to agree to a live, televised science debate. But they did get both candidates to send in written answers to 14 key questions.
This election cycle, Science Debate sent out a new set of 14 questions—all chosen from a crowdsourced list. Today, they announced that they'd gotten answers back from both Obama and Mitt Romney. You can compare the candidates side-by-side at the Science Debate website. I have to say that, while I disagree with a lot of Romney's conclusions, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of thought and time his staff clearly put into writing some very long and detailed responses.
Perhaps most surprising was his response to a question about climate change. Instead of attempting to flatly deny the evidence, Mitt Romney has apparently moved on to acknowledging that climate change is happening—while simultaneously overplaying the uncertainty surrounding specific risks, and claiming that even if climate change is a big problem there's nothing we can really do about it anyway ... because China.
Personally, I think that's pretty interesting. Climate scientists, and the journalists who write about them, have been talking, anecdotally, about seeing this exact rhetorical shift happening in conservative circles. It seems that the Republican presidential nominee is now one of the people who acknowledge climate change exists, but would still rather not take any decisive steps to deal with it.
I happen to think that's a dumb position. After all, even if the United States can't stop climate change alone, the kinds of policies that would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels would also help us adapt and thrive despite climate shifts and fossil fuel depletion. But this is still a step in the right direction. As several climate scientists I've spoken with have said, we can disagree on the policy. But it's high time we stop pretending that we can't see the changes happening all around us.
Mitt Romney: I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences. However, there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue — on the extent of the warming, the extent of the human contribution, and the severity of the risk — and I believe we must support continued debate and investigation within the scientific community.
Ultimately, the science is an input to the public policy decision; it does not dictate a particular policy response.
President Obama has taken the view that if global warming is occurring, the American response must be to slash carbon dioxide emissions by imposing enormous costs on the U.S. economy. First he tried a massive cap-and-trade bill that would have devastated U.S. industry. When that approach was rejected by Congress, he declared his intention to pursue the same course on his own and proceeded through his EPA to impose rules that will bankrupt the coal industry.
Nowhere along the way has the President indicated what actual results his approach would achieve — and with good reason. The reality is that the problem is called Global Warming, not America Warming. China long ago passed America as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases. Developed world emissions have leveled off while developing world emissions continue to grow rapidly, and developing nations have no interest in accepting economic constraints to change that dynamic. In this context, the primary effect of unilateral action by the U.S. to impose costs on its own emissions will be to shift industrial activity overseas to nations whose industrial processes are more emissions-intensive and less environmentally friendly. That result may make environmentalists feel better, but it will not better the environment. So I oppose steps like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system that would handicap the American economy and drive manufacturing jobs away, all without actually addressing the underlying problem. Economic growth and technological innovation, not economy-suppressing regulation, is the key to environmental protection in the long run. So I believe we should pursue what I call a “No Regrets” policy — steps that will lead to lower emissions, but that will benefit America regardless of whether the risks of global warming materialize and regardless of whether other nations take effective action.
For instance, I support robust government funding for research on efficient, low-emissions technologies that will maintain American leadership in emerging industries. And I believe the federal government must significantly streamline the regulatory framework for the deployment of new energy technologies, including a new wave of investment in nuclear power. These steps will strengthen American industry, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and produce the economically-attractive technologies that developing nations must have access to if they are to achieve the reductions in their own emissions that will be necessary to address what is a global issue.
Also, it's worth noting that we've used a cap and trade system in the United States before. When we did, it not only worked well, it did the job way more cheaply than anyone had guessed.
Remember acid rain? That's caused by sulfur dioxide emissions, produced largely by burning coal. We drastically reduced those emissions (making our air cleaner, people healthier, and ecosystems safer) through a cap and trade system that went into effect in 1995. At the time, according to management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, analysts thought it would cost between $3 and $25 billion to clean up America's skies. Instead, it cost about $1.4 billion.
That's because things like cap and trade aren't really about the government choosing winners and losers. Instead, it's about letting government do what it does best—i.e., setting national priorities that allow us to take long-term action on issues that affect all Americans—and then letting industry do what it does best. When government sets the priorities, industries will find ways to meet those priorities cheaply.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.