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Science and Presidents

Science and Presidents


Plato once said “Philosophers should be kings, and kings philosophers.” I would amend that to say “Politicians should be scientists, and scientists should be politicians.”

Dr. James E. Hansen, whose 2009 book, “Storms of My Grandchildren,” is the best description so far of global warming and climate change, has updated earlier projections in a paper published today by the National Academy of Sciences. Dr. Hansen gave us a preview in an August 3rd Washington Post opinion piece titled “Climate change is here – and worse that we thought.” Dr. Hansen blames human-caused climate change for the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including the European heat wave of 2003, the Russian heat wave of 2010, drought in Texas in 2011 and this extremely hot summer.

Dr. Hansen puts it this way:

“These weather events are not simply an example of what climate change could bring. They are caused by climate change. The odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small. To count on those odds would be like quitting your job and playing the lottery every morning to pay the bills.”

The science stating the obvious, that infinite growth on a finite Earth is impossible, and that collisions with natural limits might be catastrophic, has been around and accessible to non-scientists for many decades. The 1972 book, “The Limits to Growth” by a group of MIT scientists, laid out projections of resource consumption whose rose exponentially and then collapsed when various wells ran dry. Their conclusions were widely publicized, producing some wringing of hands among decision makers, but very little action to head off catastrophe.

We have explored in earlier posts developments in psychology and neuroscience which tend to explain American citizens’ refusals to pay attention to big developments, like human caused climate change, which threaten great future pain, in favor of worrying about paying this month’s gas bill and meeting other immediate personal issues. American Presidents should be held to a higher, fiduciary, standard, one looking past immediate crises to the county’s health decades or even centuries ahead. You think of Lincoln fighting to prevent the American experiment of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people from perishing from the Earth” instead of just letting the seceding Southern states go their own ways.

How do recent Presidents stack up in protecting our country’s future from environmental crises? For Jimmy Carter, ignorance is a good excuse for his aborted plans to tear down Rocky Mountains to make coal gas and tar sands oil. The science is much clearer in 2012; ignorance is no longer a presidential shield, but still Barack Obama and other recent Presidents have done very little to guard the American future. Obama’s cap-and-trade plans would not have reduced American greenhouse gas production much; they died anyway in a Congress wearing very effective climate-change and consumption-reduction blinders.

It will take political courage for the next President to begin pulling us back from the abyss, and the 2012 campaign has been light on courage. We, and our children, desperately need a President who will look with a scientist’s clear eyes at the damage hydrocarbon consumption is doing, and then lead the rest of us on a crusade to protect our collective future.

Image by Юкатан (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Comments (2)

  1. Nancy L. Ruder Monday - 06 / 08 / 2012
    I'm just wondering if we've ever had a scientist President. Hoover was an engineer. Jefferson was a Renaissance man. Any others? Kennedy was able to inspire excitement about science.
  2. Grier Raggio Monday - 06 / 08 / 2012
    Teddy Roosevelt was a naturalist who saw the need for national parks and wilderness. Lincoln is my favorite President for his combination of utter self confidence and utter humility. He would look hard at a problem and all the facts he could gather and then make a decision without ego getting in the way. The book "Team of Rivals" shows his character; he took men into his cabinet who had insulted and belittled him because he decided they were the most capable people to accomplish what the country needed.

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