How Scientists Can Engage to Solve the Climate Crisis

How Scientists Can Engage to Solve the Climate Crisis

On 14 September 2020, the U.S. Gulf Coast, still reeling from the aftermath of category 4 Hurricane Laura, was bracing for the landfall of Hurricane Sally. At the same time, active fires burned across more than 5 million acres in the United States, choking the air in the U.S. West with hazardous smoke. To scientists, it is clear that climate change is worsening these hazards by, for example, intensifying hurricane rainfall and creating hotter and dryer conditions that accelerate fire spread [Emanuel, 2017; Littell et al., 2016]. Yet despite being surrounded by clear signs of the climate crisis, President Trump that day dismissively remarked to California officials, “I don’t think science knows, actually.”

The gap between scientific consensus and political action on the unfolding climate crisis can be frustrating. For decades, geoscientists have been warning about the dangers of unmitigated climate change. Synthesis documents, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2018 Global Warming of 1.5°C report, express the consensus scientific view that immediate and dramatic reductions in carbon emissions are needed to avert climate catastrophe. But translating this alarm into tangible policy action can feel daunting when some political leaders continue to deny the science of climate change. To counter this pessimism, I offer here a motivating example of science-driven work by the U.S. Congress to solve the climate crisis, and I describe ways in which scientists can be partners in advancing climate action.

The Select Committee on the Climate Crisis

In early 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives established the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Unlike a permanent House committee, the Select Committee does not have jurisdiction over a specific area of legislative development. Instead, the Select Committee is empowered to develop comprehensive recommendations for policies on climate mitigation, adaptation, and science that cut across the full legislative purview of Congress.

Throughout its existence, Select Committee members and staff have consulted with a wide range of stakeholders, including community and business leaders, policy experts, activists, and scientists. The committee has held 19 hearings and 6 roundtables, reviewed hundreds of responses to a request for information (RFI), and engaged in over a thousand stakeholder meetings and calls.

Science and scientists played an important role throughout this process. For example, an April 2019 hearing on “Solving the Climate Crisis: Drawing Down Carbon and Building Up the American Economy” featured a scientist lead author on the Global Warming of 1.5°C report, and scientists served as witnesses for other Select Committee hearings as well. RFI responses included a joint statement from scientific societies on needs for climate change research and assessment. Committee staff also engaged directly in meetings and calls with scientists and scientific groups, both for their specific subject matter expertise and for their insight into approaches for developing science-informed climate policy.

An Action Plan for Solving the Climate Crisis

Using the input it received from stakeholders, in June 2020 the majority staff of the Select Committee issued a comprehensive climate report, Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America. Across more than 500 pages, the report provides legislative recommendations addressing many aspects of climate policy, including infrastructure, clean energy, environmental justice, public health, natural resources, and resilience. Though focused on the U.S. federal role, the report also acknowledges the importance of partnerships with local, state, and international efforts.

It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the full breadth of Select Committee report recommendations, so I will focus here on two primary areas of climate science recommendations: (1) the need for strong and sustained federal investment in foundational climate research and education and (2) the need to organize and ramp up federal efforts, in coordination with nonfederal partners, to develop and deploy actionable climate risk information to guide planning decisions in response to the mounting impacts of climate change.

On foundational climate science, Select Committee recommendations to Congress include the following:

  • Bolster federal support for climate assessments, including IPCC reports and National Climate Assessments by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, and ensure these assessments factor in high warming climate scenarios
  • Strengthen and sustain federal funding for basic research to understand Earth’s climate system and the impacts of climate change on intersecting natural and human systems
  • Increase federal investments in climate literacy, education, and workforce training, prioritizing broadening participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for underrepresented groups
  • Strengthen scientific integrity policies at federal agencies and ensure that the best available science informs federal decisions
  • Support careful study of governance frameworks for atmospheric climate intervention, also known as “geoengineering”

On applied climate risk information, Select Committee recommendations include the following:

  • Create a federal Climate Risk Information Service to maintain a centralized portal for decisionmakers to access trustworthy planning-scale climate risk projections to guide planning decisions
  • Establish mechanisms for coordination among federal and nonfederal partners to ensure that a Climate Risk Information Service leverages the full capacities of academia, the private sector, and existing federal programs and that it works closely with federal efforts to support state, local, tribal, and territorial climate adaptation planning
  • Strengthen investments in monitoring, mapping, and forecasting climate-influenced hazards
  • Ensure that high-quality projections of future climate change are made available to guide the development of codes and standards that inform long-term infrastructure and land use planning
  • Direct federal agencies to account for the full value of climate mitigation and adaptation project alternatives in benefit-cost analyses (BCA), including full consideration of nature-based approaches, and to invest in research to improve the scientific basis for BCA

These and other recommendations in the report provide a high-level road map for needed policies to address climate change. In many cases, members of Congress have already introduced bills that would advance Select Committee report recommendations. Legislative packages recently passed by the House of Representatives, such as the Moving Forward Act and the Clean Economy Jobs and Innovation Act, also advance these ideas. However, many Select Committee policy ideas have not yet been translated into legislation. Engagement with outside stakeholders, including scientists, will play a key role for guiding how Select Committee policy recommendations become reality.

Scientist Engagement in Climate Policy

The active engagement of scientists will be critical for thoughtful advancement of climate policy, including advancement of policy recommendations put forward in the Select Committee majority staff report. Here are three suggestions for how scientists can engage in the climate policy process:

  • First, be proactive in reaching out to elected officials and decisionmakers to communicate policy-relevant scientific findings. Consider connecting not only with federal-level officials but also with state and local officials on the front lines of the climate crisis. Many scientific societies, including AGU, organize activities to facilitate this outreach.
  • Second, when communicating with policymakers, work from points of mutual interest. If you are planning to meet with elected officials or their staff, educate yourself on who they represent and what their interests are. Connecting with them on common experiences can be especially impactful. Speaking collectively on behalf of organizations and partnerships that include a diverse coalition of stakeholders can help to amplify your message.
  • Third, consider career paths in policy. Science policy fellowships are a great opportunity for immersion in the policy process, either as a temporary experience or as a full career pivot. My own career has been transformed through policy fellowships organized and sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the American Geosciences Institute (AGI).

Ultimately, solving the climate crisis will require an all-hands-on-deck approach that includes government, academia, business, activists, scientists, and community groups working together on local to international solutions. Regardless of your career stage and scientific specialization, there are many ways to engage, large and small, that can harness your passions and expertise to advance climate action. Though the climate policy process can often seem frustratingly messy and divisive, there’s no alternative but to dive in, engage as you are able, and learn iteratively from the experience.


The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of AGI or AAAS.

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