Kari NorgaardDear President Obama:

First of all, I’d like to say thank you for taking our environment seriously. At this point, our most profound moral, economic and social obligation is to bring climate change under control. Of course not all environmental problems are linked to climate change. But if we can’t fix this one, not much else will matter, including even our current economic crisis. I would offer the following as you consider environmental concerns:

Listen to your science adviser

Thank you for welcoming scientists back into the White House. The recognition that science rather than corporate interests must inform public policy is a critical move for both our decision-making on climate change and the state of our nation’s democracy. At this juncture we need science more than ever. Fortunately you have made an excellent choice in commissioning Harvard physicist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient John Holdren as your science adviser. Last month Holdren presented you with a letter from NASA scientist James Hansen. Hansen is probably the best-known high level scientist to speak on the dangers of climate change. His letter concerns the urgency of stopping climate change, and a plea to base our nation’s climate policy on scientific data. Please listen to Holdren and Hansen.

Don’t wait for public consensus on climate change

Thanks to the wildly successful efforts of ExxonMobil and a few others to generate skepticism in the media and public mind regarding climate science, Americans have been remarkably out of step in our understanding of climate change. Even so, the tide has finally begun to turn in the past two years. Yet since the economic crisis, polls indicate that climate change has fallen back to the bottom of the public’s priority list.

Public opinion does matter in a democracy, but this is a time when following it would be a serious mistake. Two factors make public understanding of climate change unusually complex.

My own research describes how hearing about climate change raises fears about the future, guilt about our own involvement, feelings of helplessness and concern that our government may not be doing enough.

First, we cannot see or touch it directly. As a result, we fail to understand how climate change is fundamentally connected to the issues at the top of our list: economy, jobs, energy security and quality of life.

Second, information about global warming is disturbing. My own research describes how hearing about climate change raises fears about the future, guilt about our own involvement, feelings of helplessness and concern that our government may not be doing enough. At the deepest level, large-scale environmental problems such as global warming threaten people’s sense of the continuity of life.

My research further indicates that climate change is so disturbing that many of us simply choose not to think about it! Naturally, the fact that we have been all too willing to avoid thinking about climate change fits perfectly into the agenda of any campaign to create a sense of doubt. It is for these reasons that a primary recommendation of my report commissioned by the World Bank on climate denial is that policymakers should not wait for public opinion to take necessary action.

Eliminate coal

First among Hansen’s concerns in using science to guide our climate policy is eliminating all coal that does not employ carbon capture and storage. In October 2008, Whitman alumnus Martin Wagner ’83, now the managing attorney of the International Division at Earth Justice, explained to our environmental studies students that there are various scenarios for reducing our emissions back down out of the range for catastrophic climate change. All of them require the immediate phaseout of coal. In his letter, Hansen states that “coal is responsible for as much atmospheric carbon dioxide as the other fossil fuels combined, and its reserves make coal even more important for the long run. ... If coal emissions are phased out promptly, a range of actions including improved agricultural and forestry practices could bring the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide back down, out of the dangerous range.”

What about “carbon capture and storage?” As Wagner also told us, the technology is neither proven nor available. The earliest possibility for large-scale deployment of capture and storage technology is about 2030. But to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, emissions have to start falling around 2015. And even small leaks in underground storage would completely counteract the program. Even if it were available, now, the capture process is expensive and uses enormous energy. And money spent on carbon capture diverts investments away from sustainable solutions to climate change. Even if it does become viable, new figures suggest that it’s likely to increase rather than reduce our total emissions.

Be wary of nuclear

You can’t do it with clean coal. The technology isn’t there. Your science adviser and many others at this point say nuclear is necessary. I hope it’s not. Nuclear still generates climate emissions and poses significant risks to nearby communities. Plants are expensive and take time to build. Then there are the issues of large-scale plutonium production, radioactive waste dumps and the presence of serious targets for terrorist attack.

I applaud your commitment to renewables. But such spending on nuclear options likely would divert resources from other long-term sustainable sources. Energy efficiency measures are reported to be seven times more cost-effective for reducing greenhouse gases than is nuclear power. Above all, if we do develop some nuclear options, let’s not mistake it for the silver bullet. In the long-run renewables and energy efficiency must make up the difference.