There was a lot of Rome left after Nero
Even in the little world of climate science, we saw our share of hooliganism during the final days of the Trump Administration.
In November, the White House removed Michael Kuperberg from his role as the executive director of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and replaced him with David Legates. Legates is widely known as a climate change skeptic. In the week before the inauguration, Legates and friends published a set of unscientific, unreviewed documents claiming copyright of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). This motivated Legates’ near-immediate removal from his detail to OSTP. All of these moves were unsavory, unethical, and perhaps illegal — but existing as insignificant noise in those last days.
Barely two weeks later, President Joe Biden signed a stack of executive orders on #climateday. This contrast to the exiting administration is more like switching a vacuum cleaner to a leaf blower than a pendulum swing.
As expected, as soon as Biden was in office, he went to work reversing many of Trump’s executive orders. As much as this is celebrated by those concerned about the planet, this continuing practice is a terrible way to form lasting policy. We’ve ceded our approach to climate change to the signature of whoever helms the executive branch, and hence whichever party holds the office of president. The whole process becomes an exercise in personal belief and partisan tribalism.
Therefore, I feel an important strategic goal in the next two years is to establish a firm legislative foundation for both mitigation and adaptation in response to climate change.
The mitigation issue
Mitigation — which focuses on reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — appears to be a top priority of the Biden Administration. But mitigation requires major intervention across the entire planet’s infrastructure of energy production. This would force a transition in large sectors of the economy and disrupt the hierarchy of corporate and national power. Therefore, it is one of the most difficult outcomes to achieve.Adaptation, on the other hand, can be localized. It’s often a reaction to an existing or increasingly obvious problem — the sea lapping at your home’s foundation, for example. As with many problems, the potential exists to scale coherent and coordinated individual approaches into regional solution strategies. It should be more tractable to develop adaptation policy and law. There could be lasting (perhaps even bipartisan) support and benefit with more focus on adaptation.
Climate awareness is pervasive among most of Biden’s cabinet nominees and agency political appointees. This offers potential for climate issues to infiltrate policy interpretation and regulation enforcement. Still, without legislation to fund and support these efforts, they will fall into the same pattern of executive back-and-forth that we now experience at the national level.
Large organizations tend to fragment activities, and the federal government often carries this to an art form. Indeed, as a manager at NASA, I discovered many colleagues felt they benefited — or even thrived — in such an environment. In crisis, we’ve seen individual agencies and resources come together in unique configurations, so we know the capacity for collective action exists. The capability often does not. Biden is taking an important first step to change that. He has appointed Gina McCarthy as White House National Climate Advisor. She will face the daunting tasks of wrangling countless federal pieces into a cohesive whole. I would like to see the effort persist in a National Environmental Security Council.
Rebuilding … better than before?
Some visionary aspects of the Biden Administration’s approach to climate and energy stand in stark contrast to the Trump Administration. I’m impressed by the new president’s move to combine elements of social justice and environmental policy. Our culture and values will need to evolve, though, if we expect to see a healthier society.
I believe one of the most important lessons we learned from the Trump Administration is the importance of ethics. I worked in government for more than 20 years. Even at Michigan, I remain involved with government. But I never before experienced the swing in ethical values that we had in the Trump Administration and I was alarmed by the attacks on science and scientists. The erosion of integrity placed excellent scientists in unfamiliar roles with no good outcomes.
Since Jan. 20, I have been truly impressed by the new administration’s focus on science and climate. The team appears to have done an impressive level of planning. But it’s still the federal government we’re talking about, and the tendency to fragment and shift with elections continues to create endemic and persistent barriers.
We must protect the ethical foundation of our government; it should not reside in the self-interested stroke of an executive’s pen. Throwing science and ethics into turmoil for personal and partisan gain does not help our climate. Success, beyond even two years, will depend on how quickly we move from the initial enthusiasm to addressing real, strategic work.