I’ve spent today lobbying Congress. Strange experience.

I was part of a group of scientists and economists involved with The Union of Concerned Scientists, delivering U.S. Scientists and Economists’ Call for Swift and Deep Cuts in Greenhouse Gas Emissions to the offices of Senators and Representatives, and meeting with their staff.

I don’t know how much good it will do; the present bill (Lieberman-Warner) being debated in the Senate will almost certainly not pass with the required supermajority. Our legislative system in the US seems designed for stalling, and things seem bound to get bogged down in the usual short-term fights between interest groups.

It’s impressive how responsive Congresspeople are to constituent pressures and local business concerns. If you can mobilize a large number of people to make demands, keep pressure on Congress to respond to these demands, and can deliver votes to punish or reward Congress in elections, things can happen. But on an issue such as climate change, our public education has not been as successful as it needed to have been. Congress appears reactive; you need to build up pressure from the outside. But for many Americans, climate change isn’t a front-burner issue, even though we’re all facing a strong likelihood of serious trouble down the road.

This reiterates why the influence of Christian conservatives in past couple of decades is no surprise. They’ve been mobilized in the right way. Indeed, they’ve been the most significant grassroots democratic movement on the American scene.

Yet, even with this responsiveness to mobilized constituencies, I hesitate to say that democracy is in a healthy state in this country. If we think of democracy as popular participation in decisions that affect us all, and especially democracy as a deliberative process, all is not good. The mobilized constituencies that we get do not often fit that picture of people who deliberate and participate. Unfortunately, we have an electorate that is overworked and zoned out on TV (and does, in fact, let their vote be strongly influenced by mindless TV advertising and propaganda) and religion. Which may be just fine for those who enjoy the most power and wealth. Sigh.

Evolution vs. The Argument from Providence
Critical Thinking is Bigotry
ISIS Violence IS Religious
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Taner, I am very gratified to hear about your activism. A couple of years ago I spoke to the humanist group in Cleveland. I had just read Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science, which thoroughly alarmed me. I told the audience that scientists no longer have the luxury of just addressing their colleagues. At one time scientists could go about their business, doing research and publishing in the journals. As for the blathering of the scientific ignoramuses, scientists could just let the asses bray. No longer. Scientific rationality has been under strident attack by ideologues of the left and the right for some time now.

    The left-wing antiscience of postmodernists, social constructivists, and radical feminists could be dealt with pretty easily with powerful polemics like Gross and Levitt’s Higher Superstition and Noretta Koertge’s A House Built on Sand. These books exposed the shoddy arguments and the empty rhetoric of the “science critics.” Also, Alan Sokal’s famous sting revealed the ignorance and intellectual laziness of the left-wing antiscience crowd.

    But it is one thing when an idiot in the English Department doesn’t like science; it is something else entirely when the antiscience zealot is the idiot in the White House. Antiscience has metastasized from the halls of academe to the halls of power. Christian fundamentalists, through their spokesmen in the executive branch, and through allies in the legislative branch, such as Senators Jim Inhofe, Tom Coburn, Jim DeMint, David Vitter, Larry Craig, Bill Frist, John Cornyn, and Sam Brownback, are undermining science like never before. No longer is the target just evolution, but issues ranging from global climate change to the effectiveness of “abstinence only” sex-ed curricula. In each of these cases, legitimate science has been censored and supplanted with dogma. Here in Houston, a “Brownie,” a scientifically ignorant Bush political appointee, at one time had the power to censor the statements of NASA scientists when they conflicted with fundamentalist ideology.

    When antiscience has that kind of power, polemical books and even Sokal-like stings are not enough. Scientists have to lobby the politicians and take their case to the voters. So, thanks, Taner, and I can only hope more scientists will follow your example.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Historically, the federal government only takes action on issues like this after many states and private corporations have already done so, and they take action in order to preempt state laws for the purpose of creating a uniform playing field, at the demand of large corporations that operate in multiple states. We’re already seeing this in action in individual states, in regions (e.g., Arizona and New Mexico’s regional climate change initiative), and by private groups (like the Chicago Climate Exchange, which is voluntarily being used by large corporations such as Ford, DuPont, United Technologies, and many others). The market is also already offering rich rewards to companies that are pursuing alternative energy proposals–for example, Chandler, Arizona company First Solar went public in November 2006 at about $24/share and now trades at over $240/share.

    The U.S. often allows states to experiment with different regulatory options to see what works before preempting state law.

    This letter talks about the risks of doing nothing, but it makes the mistake of remaining completely silent about the costs of reducing “heat-trapping emissions” (which it doesn’t list) to 80% below 2000 levels by 2050. Is that even possible without reduction of electricity generation? Which points out another flaw–how exactly do these scientists propose achieving this end? The letter is silent–though I guess I need to read the works cited in footnotes 5 and 6, but I question why some summary wasn’t provided. Without a specific proposal, the letter sounds to me like asking for King Canute to order back the sea.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    Jim Lippard: “This letter talks about the risks of doing nothing, but it makes the mistake of remaining completely silent about the costs of reducing “heat-trapping emissions”

    That’s not the purpose of a short letter like this. It’s short and lacks details, yes. It’s something to shake at a Congressperson, with two overwhelming emphases: urgency, and the fact that scientists and economists have come together in such a declaration.

    We had plenty of details to provide, both on the science and the economics, when asked, in our meetings with congressional staff. All our groups went in as a team of three: a scientist, an economist and a UGS person who knew more about the politics than the academic types.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16826768452963498005 Jim Lippard

    Today’s news has an AP story answering my question. The International Energy Agency estimates that to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2050 will cost $45 trillion, require building 1,400 nuclear plants (32/year), fitting 35 coal-power plants and 20 gas-power plants per year with carbon capture technology each year between 2010 and 2050, add 17,000 wind turbines per year, and improve carbon efficiency in transportation by a factor of eight.

    That’s globally, not just the U.S., which is good because that cost is three times U.S. GDP. It’s still 1.1% of world GDP, assuming a 3.3% annual growth rate.

    The story’s here on Yahoo.

    We’d better get started on those nuclear plants–the U.S. hasn’t built one Watts Bar Unit 1, where construction was halted in 1988, was completed in 1996. Watts Bar Unit 2, approved last year for completion, will come online in 2013. NRG Energy last year filed an application to build two new reactors in South Texas, but I don’t think anything else is currently in the works. The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix, which currently has three units and was the last plant completed before Watts Bar (in 1988), has room for at least a couple more–it originally had approved applications for two more units which were cancelled in the mid-1980s.

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