Tough climate

    The US National Academy of Sciences faces a difficult balancing act over global warming.

    The US Congress has put the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in an awkward position. In asking for the academy's advice on what to do about global climate change, it has left the NAS with a difficult balancing act if the academy wants to be effective and remain respected.

    The question of efficacy is in large part a matter of timing: things are moving very quickly in the climate arena, and the political world won't necessarily wait for the academy's methodical review. In the past two weeks, for example, as the NAS was gathering information on the science and policy of climate change at a high-level workshop in Washington DC, two congressmen — Henry Waxman (Democrat, California) and Edward Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts) — introduced a 648-page bill that would commit the United States to a cap-and-trade programme to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. In Bonn, Germany, meanwhile, international negotiators were meeting as part of the lengthy process of hammering out a climate treaty, which is expected to be adopted in Copenhagen this December.

    The NAS study committee, under the banner of America's Climate Choices, is not scheduled to release its first set of findings until the end of the year — by which time the national and international strategies on climate change may well have been decided.

    The concern over respect comes from the scope of the studies. Congress specifically asked the NAS committee — which includes top scientists, corporate leaders, environmentalists and industry representatives — to “make recommendations regarding what steps must be taken and what strategies must be adopted in response to global climate change, including the science and technology challenges thereof”.

    On the face of it, this sounds as though Congress was asking the NAS for specific policy choices — a request that could lead the academy into dangerous territory. Although it has recommended specific policies in the past, the academy runs the risk of politicizing itself and weakening its standing should it advocate policies such as the stabilization of carbon dioxide at a particular atmospheric concentration, or the adoption of a US cap-and-trade programme. These are not scientific decisions: they depend on how much society is willing to spend on curbing CO2 emissions versus how much it is willing to live with the results — a fundamentally political problem.

    Leaders of the NAS study say that they are not overly concerned. On timing, they point out that any bill moving through Congress this year will be only the first of many. And the same could be said of any treaty that emerges from Copenhagen. NAS studies are meant to provide sound and comprehensive advice that could inform policies over the long term. That laudable goal should not stop the academy from providing Congress with more immediate guidance, should Congress ask for it. For example, the academy could produce an interim report within a few months summarizing its most important findings so far.

    As for politicization, the NAS can avoid the pitfalls by its usual practice of outlining the pluses and minuses of different policy options without choosing specific ones. In particular, the committee should examine both carbon taxes and a cap-and-trade programme, even though politicians avoid talking about the former and have lined up behind the latter. If the NAS eschews politics, as it should, then it should have a much greater impact than any advocate ever could, simply by providing a trusted and dispassionate analysis of each strategy's relative merits.

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    Tough climate. Nature 458, 679–680 (2009).

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