News Archive

posted 03/14/03

Climate Change: The Battle Between Scientists and Government
by Professor John Mutter

John Mutter

Professor John Mutter, Geophysicist and Deputy Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University

The federal government is struggling to shape what could become one of the most important pieces of science policy of the 21st century - its strategy for understanding and addressing global climate change.

Already the lines are being drawn between scientists and policy makers who must consider the science that underpins policy development, along with the many social and economic constraints within which government operates. An entrenched battle between scientists and government will do no good and could lead to a dangerous stalemate in which no action is taken. With the future of the planet at stake, there can be no winners or losers.

Three essential focal points must shape the collective deliberations of scientists and policy makers as we develop a national science policy to meet the challenge of global climate change: accepting the inherent uncertainties of forecasting climate; looking to what we’ve learned about such short to mid term climate change as El Niño to help set priorities and focus research dollars; and recognizing that climate is global, with extreme climate wreaking the most havoc on the world’s poorest citizens.

Global climate can be broadly thought of as chaotic in nature. Some characteristics of the system are predictable - there will always be seasons - but many key components are not predictable at all, or can be forecast only a small time into the future. Uncertainties arise not because scientific understanding of the climate system is inadequate, but because we actually have a well-developed understanding of the climate system. That's just the nature of it and all the science that we can throw at it won't change nature itself. Any statement about the future state of the global climate will contain uncertainty, and that's that.

Given this fact, our climate change research strategy must identify the source of uncertainties, reduce them when at all possible, and quantify them when that can be done. Most importantly, we must develop decision making tools and strategies that allow us to make rational choices about what should be done in the face of uncertainties. That is, after all, what we all do in our daily lives and what governments do routinely on myriad issues of national policy.

The second point is the recognition that climate perturbations that occur on time scales of months to years, associated with such phenomenon as El Niño, produce climate variations that equal or exceed any we might expect to come from long-term climate change, at least over the present century. We can learn from this. El Niño brings devastating floods to some countries and droughts to others, but is one of the climate's more predictable components. Science has unlocked that part of the climate genome and predictions of El Niño can now be made several months to as much a year in advance. While there are uncertainties, forecasts can be of huge value to local government and business leaders who have to manage the economic and other consequences of these climate fluctuations.

The federal government, through the National Oceans and Atmospheres Administration, sponsored much of the research that led to the scientific breakthrough of El Niño prediction and established the International Research Institute (IRI) for Climate Prediction, which The Earth Institute at Columbia University hosts. The IRI’s mission is to advance the prediction skill we have in El Niño forecasting.

We cannot prevent climate variations but we can warn of their coming and develop ways to endure them with the least harmful consequences. Thus, the IRI's mandate to develop decision strategies for adaptation to and mitigation of the most devastating consequences of El Niño-related weather changes is equally important. The lessons we are learning now can be applied to understanding how to deal with long-term climate changes. Sadly, the El Niño's harshest consequences most often happen in the tropics and arid parts of the world, where most of the poorest people live. Their lives can be profoundly affected through associated food shortages or even lost through climate-related natural disasters, including disease outbreaks. The pathway toward development can be deeply impeded if already poor countries need to constantly wage costly battles against the ravages of climate.

Any U.S. science policy on climate change must, finally, focus on the world’s poor. Global climate change will be distributed quite differently around the world, but there is no doubt that the poorest will suffer most. Even if the climate change is at the low end of predictions, the consequences in poor countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa could be tragic. Life for tens of millions is already on the edge there. People live a marginal existence characterized by scarcity, hunger and disease. Even minor climate changes that the world’s developed nations could easily cope with could threaten the balance of life in these regions.

Climate is global. The richest are connected to the poorest through the atmosphere and ocean currents, and our actions will affect their very lives. Our national science policy must recognize that reality and build a constructive strategy for managing global climate change far into the future.


Professor John Mutter
Geophysicist and Deputy Director
The Earth Institute at Columbia University

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.