Good Science

A few weeks ago, while visiting my parents, I read a guest commentary by Jeffrey Jarrett in their local newspaper. Mr. Jarrett is the assistant secretary of the Office of Fossil Energy in the U.S. Department of Energy. The same commentary was apparently printed in multiple newspapers around the country (see here, here, or here). His article warrants debate; my response follows:

Science means something and must not be made to serve political opinion. I can appreciate the goals outlined for a “comprehensive, multi-billion dollar Climate Change Science Initiative;” however, much of the research and conclusions concerning climate change are extant. This is not a new or recently realised matter; over the past century, scientist have noted the cumulative effects of industrial activity and voiced concern. These voices were largely ignored.

We, as a society, rely on science as fact; there is little debate or confusion concerning science that aims to advance ceramics, toothpaste, or eyeglasses. There is no political capital won in arguing over it. However, the same science used to develop optics applies to observations concerning the environment. Mr. Jarrett’s commentary implies that scientists are a lot of confused mumblers; while, on the other hand, a group of government funded scientists will, by using “good science,” determine our best course of action. My question to Mr. Jarrett is, when did the previously understood science become untenable and what constitutes “good science” according to Mr. Bush?

Mr. Jarrett places great hope in technology to resolve the predicament we are in (that is, I’m assuming, if the good scientists determine there is a predicament at all). However, technology itself cannot become a solution if the problem addressed is insurmountable; it, of course, cannot provide answers if we ask the wrong questions. According to Mr. Jarrett, a large percentage of our energy is born from the consumption of fossil fuels; these fuels, as a source of energy, cause apparent harm to life; and we are uncertain of their near-term availability (both in terms of physical availability and political reality). Why, if this is the case, does the research and development of alternative sources of energy only garner a passing mention from the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Fossil Energy?

Half of Mr. Jarrett’s commentary is devoted to “something called ‘Carbon Sequestration.’” This title of his commentary (which, perhaps, was not chosen by the author), is “Technology may bury climate change issue for good.” [ title as printed in the Morgantown, WV Dominion Post ] This assumes two things: we can solve a problem by the same means it was created and, this new “good science” will put a permanent end to the issue. However, though the technology behind carbon sequestration is feasible, the permanence is not. The storage of CO2 in underground fissures does nothing to change its nature as a greenhouse gas; it only delays its eventual release into the atmosphere. Of major concern to climatologists are existing natural stores of methane frozen in permafrost and sea beds. If global temperatures do rise and these gasses are released, the greenhouse effect could increase by magnitudes. Of course, Mr. Jarrett would propose that carbon sequestration might delay that warming till technology offers a more viable energy alternative. But his suggestion that the offset CO2 be used to produce more fossil fuels seems to argue against that point.

Mr. Jarrett implies that, to explore energies far different than fossil fuels would, “. . .risk economic and social dislocations that really don’t bear thinking about.” His language is telling; since changing course would be so difficult, let us not even consider it. Let us not change our behaviour. Let us rely on “good science” and government initiative. Mr. Bush, addressing President Hu Jintao of China at a recent Asian trade summit stated, “I strongly support your vision, Mr. President, of encouraging your country to become a nation of consumers and not savers.” I suppose this is reasonable; why encourage economic or environmental thrift when “good science” will, no doubt, have ready solutions “in a few short years?”

No amount of governance can directly address the natural world; we cannot determine “environmental policy” by economics and political expediency alone. Our current situation is evidence of this; if we are given “answers” but are unwilling to undertake the social changes that may be necessary to accomplish them, no sum of money or scientific knowledge will aid us.

Update: my response above was printed in the Morgantown, WV Dominion Post editorial section on 17 December 2006.