Like many Americans, I witnessed our 44th president deliver his first State of the Union address last week, expecting to hear the usual remarks about the recession and, given Obama’s reputation as an orator, maybe at most a moment or two of eloquence. As a graduate student in biology, I was pleased but not surprised to hear Obama reference the stimulus money that went to scientific research and his dedication to improving science education. But when the President mentioned climate change, I perked up and abruptly stopped nodding automatically.
It wasn’t that I disagreed with his point — he was supporting clean energy and energy efficiency. It was his apparent acceptance that scientific evidence was insufficient to drive bipartisan legislation on one of the most important issues of our generation.
Obama had begun talking about climate change with a backhanded introduction: “I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change,” which was followed by audible booing from one side of the aisle. But Obama smiled and continued, “Here’s the thing — even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future — because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.”
At first glance, this economics-based argument for pushing ahead on clean energy policy seemed like a reasonable one. After all, if one can’t convince an opponent with one line of reasoning, try another. But nagging at me was Obama’s implication that America can be a leader even if it ignores science. Surely the man who promised in his inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place” was kidding? Along with the rest of the scientific community, I had presumed that this ‘rightful place’ was somewhere other than the boot soles of George W. Bush ’68.
But after my initial anger began to wane, I started to think about why Obama said what he did. Cleverly, Obama had avoided providing a label for “those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence.” The jeering made it clear his intended targets across the party line understood whom he was addressing. If Obama can get Republicans to join in on climate change legislation for economic reasons, then kudos to him. But was that really all he was trying to do? If Obama thought he was cajoling his Republican countrymen to pass clean energy legislation, he was not successful. The truth is that scientific evidence is not respected in politics — and I believe Obama was calling them out on it. I’m sure there are some Republicans — and Democrats — who genuinely don’t believe the wealth of data that support global warming. I suspect, however, that there are far more who have no qualms with the evidence itself, but choose to attack the science because it’s the easiest and most efficient way of undermining its political power to create laws that limit the detrimental effect of humans on the environment.
Science shouldn’t tell us what policies to enact, but as the closest thing we have to unbiased information it must be the foundation for recognizing the problems we need to solve. And because science can inform so many of our important policy decisions from climate change and energy to education and the economy, it should matter much more than it currently does — especially in an administration “friendly” to science. At the same time, we should refrain from politicizing science and transforming it into a weapon to delay important legislation. Obama’s appeal is disturbing because “overwhelming scientific evidence” should be enough to galvanize action. The reality is that a nation that refuses to embrace empirical evidence will never lead the global economy. America must not be that nation.