Political Non-Science Part II: Calling Dr. Holdren
The events of 2012 should have finally pushed climate change to the forefront of our national political conversation. Earlier this year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) stopped equivocating and announced that that the anomalous weather of 2012, including hundreds of new temperature records and a devastating months-long drought in the U.S. Midwest, was a direct result of the accumulation of greenhouse gases. Despite these factors, the 2012 presidential debates were the first since 1980 with no mention of global warming or climate change.
Since the beginning of the industrial age, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 250 to 380 parts per million (ppm), which has driven a global average temperature rise of 1.6 oC. In order to prevent dramatic impacts on our way of life, we need to limit the total temperature rise to about 2 oC, which means limiting the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere to no more than 450 ppm.
If we proceed with plans to exploit the Canadian oil sands and if China continues to fire up hundreds of new coal-burning power plants, we will blow right by the 450 ppm limit, and years like 2012 will become the new normal. With human population exceeding seven billion and the advent of the global, just-in-time-inventory food system, a multi-year drought in the U.S. Midwest would result in catastrophic famine around the world.
Both candidates disappoint on this vital issue, as usual Governor Romney more so than President Obama. President Obama makes the appropriate statements about climate change, but is not proposing actions which are bold enough to make a significant difference. For example, requirements for improved fuel economy in cars are helpful, but are partially offset by the increase in the number of cars on the road. Governor Romney has made a series of contradictory comments on climate change, and recently tried to mock President Obama for trying address the critical issue sea of level rise. Somewhere Governor Romney’s high school science teachers are cringing.
The current discussion of health care in the U.S. is focused almost exclusively on how people should buy insurance. Completely missing from the conversation are the increasing public health threats from both emerging diseases and diseases of yesteryear which are making a comeback.
After decades of indiscriminant antibiotic use, more and more infectious bacteria are developing resistance to the drugs we have been using to fight them. As a result, diseases that we tend to think of problems of long ago, such as tuberculosis and gonorrhea, are plaguing us again. (Just pause for a moment and consider antibiotic resistant gonorrhea.) Other “old” diseases, such as mumps and whooping cough, are on the rise in the U.S. due to a growing number of people who, under the influence of baseless demagoguery by the badly misinformed, decide not to vaccinate their children.
We are also threatened by emerging and migrating mosquito-borne diseases. Last month I wrote about the introduction and rapid spread of West Nile Virus through the 48 contiguous states. Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that the species of mosquitoes which transmit dengue fever and chickungunya – you can look it up – have migrated into the U.S. Once the mosquitoes are here, the diseases are sure to follow.
Confronting these issues requires investment in the CDC and NIH and renewed communication efforts to encourage vaccination. Governor Romney would likely say that we “cannot afford” to increase spending on public health initiatives, and President Obama has been silent on this front. We can do better than this.
So what can be done to bring more science into our public discussion and policy setting process? (Other than making Common Science the most popular weekly science column in the nation, that is.) I think the responsibility lies with the President, since he has the influence necessary to drive the national narrative. In his second term, President Obama needs to talk more about science and rely more on Dr. John Holdren. Ever hear of him?
Dr. Holdren is the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which is part of the Executive Branch. Since Franklin Roosevelt, U.S. presidents have had a science advisor. Under Bill Clinton, the director of the OSTP had near cabinet-level influence in a manner akin to the National Security Advisor. The OSTP had a major setback under George W. Bush, who first slated the office for elimination, then delayed in naming a director, moved the director’s office out of the White House, and understaffed the department by about 50%.
While President Obama has redressed the setbacks to the OSTP from the previous administration, he needs to go further. From what I can discern, Dr. Holdren appears to be a top notch scientist and public service. Let’s give him some more air time
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