SciPolBites is a series of reflections from NSPN members about current issues in science and policy. In this SciPolBite, four members share their perspectives on the connections, values, and responsibilities associated with environmental mitigation.
Environmental Mitigation: A "This AND" Issue
Climate change is shifting the definition of extremes for the country. This year, we ran out of letters in the alphabet to name tropical storms in the Atlantic, AND hurricane season doesn’t end until November 30th. 500-year rain events (which have a 0.2 percent chance of happening in any given year) are happening multiple times in a decade. Across the southwestern United States, extended heatwaves pushed temperatures into the triple digits for many days, AND historic wildfires continue to rage along the West Coast.
Communities aren’t going to face a single environmental risk in a changing climate. The landscape across the country includes places like Miami Dade county that will be facing water stress, heat stress, AND increased hurricanes at the same time. The increase in the frequency and severity of these natural disasters represent the symptoms of a changing climate and not the cause, which is increasing greenhouse gases. Environmental mitigation focuses on addressing the causes, such as decreasing greenhouse gas emissions through alternative energy sources, carbon capture technology, and environmental restoration efforts. On the other hand, adaptation focuses on building sea walls, developing drought-tolerant crops, and floodproofing, which prepare communities for the future impacts of climate change.
All of these are necessary. However, in 2014 the International Panel on Climate Change stated in its report, “Many adaptation and mitigation options can help address climate change, but no single option is sufficient by itself. Effective implementation depends on policies and cooperation at all scales and can be enhanced through integrated responses that link mitigation and adaptation with other societal objectives.”
There is no silver bullet for preparing for the extremes of climate change, and communities are going to face more than one. Given this reality, international, federal, state, and local governments will need to choose a “this AND” approach to investing in science, technology, and policies that address the symptoms (adaptation) and the causes (mitigation) of climate change.
Environmental Mitigation: A Values Issue
The wildfires in the Western United States, coupled with a contentious election cycle, have ignited conversations about climate change mitigation policy. In both the presidential and vice-presidential debates, the candidates have discussed whether they “believe” climate science. However, whether we believe the science is not the important question. Our political disagreements are often not over the science itself (how many times has the literature been referenced?) but over the policy prescriptions based on the science.
Science excels at describing what is happening, but how we make policy (and what we make) also depends on what we value during climate change mitigation. The science does not always lead to a clear policy prescription. Science can tell there is an issue, and the science can inform what could happen, but what we should do is oftentimes what is being contested. Climate change mitigation will involve making investments now that will pay off in the future. Deciding how much we discount the future is a matter of values, not necessarily scientific inquiry. Thus, we need to be attuned to these values to make effective policy. Debates over scientific belief detract from the more important political question: why is mitigation desirable? Science can tell us what is likely to occur, but the type of action required is a matter of politics.
Yes, we should believe good science. But when we are making policy, we also need to discuss how the science is informing policy, and why the proposed solution is desirable. Science cannot tell us this - only messy political discourse can.
Environmental Mitigation: A Voting Issue
This election, we are not voting for the next two to four years, but for America’s future. Climate change is amplifying risks to human systems, and continued emissions of greenhouse gases will result in irreversible changes to the climate system. While climate change has been communicated as a future problem, it is threatening every state in the country now. The impacts look different depending on where you live, as climate change is leading to more severe types of all weather like drought and hurricanes. Temperatures are rising throughout the entire country, showcased most obviously when Phoenix, Arizona suffered more 50 days of over 110 degree weather during the 2020 summer. Rising temperatures are causing more than one-third of the country to experience drought. On the other hand, a changing climate can mean a greater probability of flooding due to extreme weather events and sea-level rise in 23 states. Heat and drought have fueled the over 45,000 wildfires that have ravaged 8 million acres across the country. The burned area is larger than the size of Maryland, and the acreage is continuing to grow. Climate change is hurting everyone - it shouldn’t be a partisan issue. We must unite to fight against it and we need to elect federal, state, and local leaders that fight for our future and have the public stances and voting record to prove it.
Climate change is no longer an issue we can wait to solve. Immediate impacts are hurting Americans. Now and well into the future the resources will dwindle, and life as we know it will no longer exist. We demand clean air, ample drinking water, and livable cities. The record heat waves, extreme drought, severe fires, hurricanes, and flooding that we experienced this year are testament to the importance of tackling the climate crisis. The science is clear on how to address climate change.