The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted a 2-hour virtual roundtable yesterday of climate scientists from both natural and social sciences and other experts to discuss the scientific understanding of why arguments for delaying action on climate change are appealing and how they can be countered effectively. The event is the first White House-level convening of experts on the topic of “climate delayism” and its associated planetary, financial, and societal risks and costs. White House leaders and 17 scientists and communications experts from 11 states and the District of Columbia shared insights.

The head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and Deputy Assistant to the President Dr. Alondra Nelson applauded the roundtable participants for providing knowledge which will help to inform and accelerate federal climate action, and cited their work as an example of the value of combining social science with physical science:

“This is deeply important to us, because, as you know, the Biden-Harris Administration’s agenda on climate change is historic. We rejoined the Paris Agreement on Day One, and we’ve been back at the table internationally — leading the world to increase our collective ambition, action, and innovation over the next decade. We’ve also set bold goals for the United States: to cut U.S. emissions in half by the end of the decade, to reach 100% clean electricity by 2035, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. And we are making unprecedented investments in clean energy and climate resilience, the largest in U.S. history, to build a better America.

Now, given the realities of climate change and global warming — including the rigor and soundness of the science, and the increasing evidence of its impacts — one could be tempted to ask, “what’s taken so long?” That brings us to another reality, which this group knows better than most: that there have been for decades, and still are, forces arrayed against the cause of climate action — running the gamut from self-interest and short-term thinking, to deliberate disinformation campaigns that are as insidious as they are invidious.”

White House OSTP Deputy Director for Climate and Environment Dr. Jane Lubchenco led the roundtable, with remarks that framed the historical moment:

“While there is broad awareness of the physical science aspects of this climate crisis, attention to the social sciences has lagged behind. And at the same time, powerful vested interests have skillfully manipulated the narrative to prevent or stall action. Our world is a coupled social and environmental system that must be understood and dealt with as an integrated system. Today, we bring this richer, more complete integration of physical and social sciences to the White House. It’s been thirty years since a Republican president signed our nation up to fight climate change. It’s time to understand and fight the delayism that has already cost us so dearly.”

In closing remarks, White House Senior Advisor Neera Tanden said, “It’s clear that a variety of special interests have had a vested interest in sowing doubt on climate change and feeding denialism and delay. We need to confront that reality. However, despite this organized campaign, a strong majority of the country wants climate action because they understand the consequences of inaction.”

Five speakers provided remarks to prompt conversation: 

Tony Leiserowitz, Founder and Director of the Yale Program on Climate Communication, Senior Research Scientist at the Yale School of the Environment, started the conversation by sharing data about public perceptions of climate change, how they have changed, and why.

“In 2015, the ‘Alarmed’ and ‘Dismissive’ were tied at about 12 percent each. So for every one American ‘Alarmed’ about climate change, there was one ‘Dismissive.’ But that has changed radically in the last six years. Today, there are more than three ‘Alarmed’ for every one ‘Dismissive’ in the country. And that reflects a fundamental shift in the underlying social, cultural, and political climate of climate change. It’s why we are so achingly close to being able to take national action even though we haven’t gotten there yet.”

Andrea Dutton, Professor of Geoscience from the University of Wisconsin, summarized evidence for some of the risks of delay in light of the predictable impacts of climate change over the next three to five decades, including some less predictable impacts and potential tipping points. 

“Sea-level rise threatens the safety and security of the United States. It’s as if we have an army ringing our coastlines, advancing farther each year than the previous year, taking more land as it goes. We would not tolerate that; yet we are allowing sea level to rise unabated. We are already losing infrastructure due to coastal retreat and as sea-level rise accelerates, we risk of multiplying these losses. Social inequities are already arising between coastal communities that afford to adapt and those that cannot.”

Gernot Wagner, New York University Associated Clinical Professor and Clinical Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and Public Service steered the discussion into the very real economic costs associated with delaying climate action.

“From an economic standpoint, it is precisely the risks and uncertainties that increase the urgency for action. What we know for sure is bad, what we don’t is potentially much worse.”

Dan Abbasi, former government and civil society climate communicator, now with Douglass Winthrop Advisors, shared his experiences on effective ways to counter arguments for delay and lessons learned.

“We’re committed to 1 foot of sea level rise by 2050, but we can still stay at the low end of 2 to 7 feet by 2100 if we act. So we need to make that fork in the road more visible and remind Americans of the can-do spirit they have always brought to challenges like this and need to again – from business innovators to citizens holding their elected officials more accountable.”

Marshall Shepherd, University of Georgia Distinguished Professor of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences and past President of American Meteorological Society focused on overcoming arguments for delay through communication with different audiences.

“Doom and gloom solutions do not do well. Most Americans don’t see scientists like us every day – they see the scientists on their TV, their meteorologists, talking about kitchen table issues.  We have to remember that good messengers come from inside a community.” 

Throughout the two hours, there was a lively discussion among participants. Some additional points included the following:

Katey Walter Anthony, Professor & Aquatic Ecosystem Ecologist, the University of Alaska Fairbanks

“In the Arctic, climate-driven changes include temperature rise at triple the rate of the rest of the planet, wildfires, decline in sea ice extent, loss of glaciers, and widespread warming and thaw of permafrost. These changes come with local costs. Communities must relocate. Roads, pipelines, and trails collapse. Water supplies become uncertain. Fish, wildlife and plants used for food and materials face threats. Ramifications are also planetary. Less snow and ice and higher carbon emissions in the Arctic increase sea levels.”

Kerry Ard, Professor of Environmental & Natural Resource Sociology, Ohio State University

“Climate change has increasingly been pushing people in the poorest and most affected countries towards opportunities in the U.S. and other industrialized countries. The demographic shift has prompted xenophobia and unrest, leaving policymakers to wonder what can be done to aid in an equitable and peaceful transition of receiving communities into healthy, more diverse, forms of themselves?”

Shahzeen Attari, Professor of Environmental and Public Affairs, Indiana University

“Our prior work finds that conservatives and liberals have a shared vision for a decarbonized energy mix for the year 2050, but they do not agree on the policy pathways of getting there. Given these results, we need to identify narratives for climate action and solutions that will appeal to conservatives to foster swift decarbonization today.”

Kim Cobb, Georgia Power Chair & Director, Global Change Program, Georgia Tech

“What are the opportunities, how can we grow our economy, how can we move equitably towards a low-carbon future? These are the kinds of arguments which can gain traction and help Georgians see what’s the risk and what’s the benefit from a Georgia-based perspective.”

Justin Farrell, Professor of Sociology, Yale University

“Research also shows that funding was allocated to create fake “grassroots” organizations– or front groups – staffed with fake experts, again with the intent of promoting doubt about CO2 and increasing global temperatures. Further, fossil fuel corporations and trade associations hired some of the best PR firms to test, tailor and target messaging they knew would be effective in manipulating public opinion related to climate change.”

John E. Fernandez, Professor of Architecture & Director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative

“Targeted delayism downplays health concerns of methane in homes and intends to extend the use of methane through the creation of concern for the viability of alternative low-carbon solutions. Narratives of delayism have taken advantage of this gap in general awareness about the health consequences of household methane emissions and combustion to assert that natural gas is the very best low-carbon alternative currently available. This is not accurate.”

Michel Gelobter, Climate Strategist, Founder & Chairman, Cooler

“Climate is a slow-motion pandemic: The direct impact of climate change is being felt, but as those of us who are deep in the field know, we’re doing a terrible job of surfacing the impacts of how much heat and environmental change we are baking into our social and environmental systems.”

Katharine Hayhoe, Chief Scientist, The Nature Conservancy and Professor, Texas Tech University

“That’s why it’s so encouraging when research provides us with insights on how we can overcome political polarization: by focusing on something that connects us rather than divides us. For example, when we address the challenge of psychological distance by bringing the impacts of climate change near to us in time and space and relevance, people can bond and connect over a shared love of or concern for place, family, or priority.”

Michael Mann, Professor of Atmospheric Science & Director of Earth System Science Center, Pennsylvania State University

“We really are moving away from hard denial. It’s very difficult to deny things that people can see with their own eyes. And so we’ve seen this transition from denial to division, deflection, distraction, delay, and quite important – doom-mongering. We can create a much better world if we act now. There is urgency but there is also agency.”

Naomi Oreskes, Professor of the History of Science & Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Harvard University

“For most ordinary Americans, it’s about the present. It is about what’s happening right here, right now in the U.S. of A. We have concrete scientific evidence that storms, floods, fires that have destroyed people’s homes have been made worse by climate change.  I have a slide that is a picture of a terrifying fire that is burning down people’s homes, and the title is three words:  Theory Made Real.  When I show that slide to my audiences, you can hear a pin drop in the room. People may say, ‘let’s wait and see.’ The truth is, we have waited, and we have seen.”

Veerabhadran “Ram” Ramanathan, Professor of Climate Sciences and Physical Oceanography, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego

“The dire consequences of unchecked warming are becoming clearer,” said Ramanathan. “Numerous medical academies in the US and worldwide have concluded that climate change poses grave threats to public health. After 40 years in this eco-chamber of restating climate facts, I have concluded we need a different approach. We have to unpack climate change from all the other issues that divide America.”

Jigar Shah, Director, U.S. Department of Energy Loan Programs Office

“We have at our disposal most of the tools and resources we need to meet the Administration’s bold climate agenda while creating good jobs through an equitable energy transition. Doing this will require a laser focus on using those resources and tools to maximize private sector capital formation – both supply and demand. In short, we need to a strong focus on government program execution with the specific goal of private sector capital formation.”

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