At the recent annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, scientists presented evidence of climate change proceeding more rapidly than they had imagined 15, 10 or even five years ago. After a brief hiatus due mostly to the economic downturn, they noted, global greenhouse gas emissions are rising again. Arctic sea ice is retreating at an unprecedented rate, sea levels are rising more rapidly than anticipated, and the sea-surface temperatures that drive tropical storms and hurricanes are rising, too.
Another topic at last month’s gathering was how the latest climate models do not account for the additional warming caused by methane release from thawing permafrost and the continental shelves. This means that the generally accepted projections for what may happen in the coming decades are almost certainly not the worst-case scenarios.
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, political leaders including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) have made the connection between climate change and the costs of inaction. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) acknowledged the reality of climate change in 2011, and his state faces massive costs associated with climate-related damage. Unfortunately, on the congressional level, Republican leaders refuse to address the issue.
But President Obama can move independently of Congress to address this critical issue: He can mobilize scientists through the U.S. national laboratory system.
There is a powerful precedent for the president to take this route. The core of the national laboratory system was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the Manhattan Project to address an earlier threat to American safety and security: the possibility that German scientists were going to build an atomic bomb that could have been decisive in World War II. Scientists brought the issue to the president’s attention and then did what he asked: They built a deliverable weapon in time for use in the war.
While historians have long argued about the seriousness of the threat of a Nazi atomic bomb, there is no question that at the time it was viewed as imminent. Today we face a threat that is somewhat less immediate but far less speculative. An obvious response is to engage the national laboratory system to study options to reduce or alleviate climate change, which the president could do by executive order.
Progress in many areas of research and development could greatly reduce the problem in the next few decades. Most are already areas of active research that could easily be ramped up.
●Alternative energy. The climate problem is fundamentally an energy problem. While strides have been made — by both industry and government — in developing alternative energy sources, renewables still provide only a sliver of the U.S. energy profile. The scale of renewable energy research and development needs to be radically increased.
●Carbon capture and storage. Shale gas development in the United States and Canada is generating jobs and revenue and could substantially decrease our reliance on petroleum. But shale gas is still gas — methane: a fossil fuel that when burned produces carbon dioxide. Large-scale development may exacerbate the climate problem if inexpensive gas undercuts the market for renewables. If, however, shale gas development could be coupled with carbon capture and storage, trapping the carbon dioxide produced, then this resource might be usable without worsening climate change.
●Energy storage. Wind and solar are real sources of energy, but only when the wind blows or the sun shines. Yet many wind and solar projects produce excess capacity that could be used later or elsewhere if it could be stored. Ideas for renewable-energy storage need to be developed and expanded.
●Social obstacles to energy efficiency. Numerous studies show that Americans could cut energy use by 30 percent or more through efficiency measures and save money at the same time. Yet most of us don’t. This is a bit of a mystery for economists; social science research in the laboratory system should be mobilized to figure out why we don’t save energy and money even when we could.
●Climate engineering. Deliberate alteration of the climate to compensate for inadvertent modification is a technically and ethically troubling concept, but it may be one of the only available means to slow climate warming and buy time while other solutions are implemented. Physical scientists should expand their work in this area, and social scientists and humanists should be enlisted to address the ethical dimensions and governance issues.
Curiosity-driven science has not yet provided the solutions to global warming, and universities are not well situated to address a single, overarching problem. Moreover, the president does not have authority over our nation’s universities. But he does have authority over our national laboratory system. The labs have been mobilized before; the time has come to mobilize them again.
Naomi Oreskes is a professor of history and science studies at the University of California at San Diego and co-author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.