Scientists have had enough of Congress' climate denial. On Tuesday, a whopping 31 major scientific groups — representing tens of thousands of researchers — delivered a joint letter to Capitol Hill to present a unified front on the seriousness of human-caused global warming and the need to address it.
The 3-page letter, which is a more forceful version of a 2009 letter to which 19 scientific societies signed on, comes as the House Science Committee continues to investigate peer reviewed studies of climate change.
It also landed on Congress' doorstep as House lawmakers are maneuvering to block the Pentagon from spending money to implement its plan to adapt to global warming and prepare for the more unstable world it is ushering in.
In addition, money to fund climate adaptation efforts in developing countries, which is a key part of the Paris Climate Agreement, is also on the chopping block in negotiations between the House and Senate.
The letter sends a powerful message to lawmakers that have been standing in the way of climate action.
The problem with it, though, is that it's unlikely to do anything to change the toxic dynamic on Capitol Hill or beyond.
An appeal to scientific authority
"Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research concludes that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver," the letter states. "This conclusion is based on multiple independent lines of evidence and the vast body of peer-reviewed science."
Some of the largest groups that signed the letter include the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), whose CEO, Rush Holt, is a former congressman from New Jersey and a physicist by training, as well as the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and American Chemical Society.
"Climate change is real and happening now, and the United States urgently needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions," Holt said in a statement.
"We must not delay, ignore the evidence, or be fearful of the challenge. America has provided global leadership to successfully confront many environmental problems, from acid rain to the ozone hole, and we can do it again. We owe no less to future generations."
Other groups that joined the statement include the American Meteorological Society (weather geeks), Geological Society of America (geology geeks), and even the Society of Nematologists (worm geeks). One noteworthy holdout is the American Physical Society (physics geeks), though that group does have its own climate statement.
The Republican-led House has been so hostile to climate science research that it has sought to cut funding in nearly every budget line item containing the word "climate." At a 2015 Senate committee hearing, NASA administrator Charles Bolden was forced to defend why NASA studies the Earth at all.
"We can't go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center goes underwater and we don't know it — and that's understanding our environment," Bolden said, referencing global warming-related sea level rise.
"It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth's environment because this is the only place that we have to live," Bolden said.
The lengths to which some members of Congress, such as House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) are going to harass climate scientists and investigate climate advocacy groups shows that it is wishful thinking to believe that an appeal to scientific authority is going to change many House members' entrenched climate denial.
"I agree that this letter is unlikely to persuade the 'unpersuadables' within Congress," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale's Program on Climate Change Communication who closely tracks public opinion on this issue.
Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
"But it’s still important on several levels," he said in an email to Mashable.
"... It draws (again) a red line where members of Congress have to decide whether or not they agree with the conclusions of the scientific community that this problem exists, is human-caused, and has serious consequences," Leiserowitz said.
He cited a mantra of another expert on public attitudes regarding climate change, Ed Maibach of George Mason University, that "... Simple, clear and compelling messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted messengers" are most effective.
"We forget the repeated often, repeated often, repeated often at our peril!" Leiserowitz said.
Facts won't carry the day, at least not right now
David Titley, director of the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at Penn State University and a former top Navy climate programs official, said he recognizes the letter itself is not going to change the policy environment.
"It's a sad commentary on the Congress that we feel we still need to write letters like this," he said via email.
"If this was a discussion about facts, evidence, or even risk management, the debate would have ended years ago. But this is really about ideology, beliefs, money, the role of governments in solving long-term challenges, and, frankly, a failure of imagination on scales rarely seen before," Titley said.
"Scientific societies can and should play a constructive supporting role in the evolution of this issue, but are unlikely to break the logjam by reciting facts already known and embraced to those who examine the evidence, and denied by those who refuse to address the issue."
Image: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
So the letter is simultaneously impressive and impotent, given the post-factual era in which we're trapped in.
According to Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University who devotes a considerable portion of her time to giving climate science presentations to the public, said that scientific societies recognize this issue too.
"It is clear to most of us, including many of the leaders of those scientific societies, that traditional modes of communication no longer achieve their purpose in a world where ideologically-driven opinions supersede facts any day," she told Mashable.
The AGU, for example, tries to address this by helping to train its members in science communication, and the AAAS provides fellowships to embed scientists on Capitol Hill.
"At the same time, however, it makes sense for the societies not to abandon their traditional approach of making statements," Hayhoe said.
"No other group of scientific organizations has the same gravitas; these letters still matter to some; and they may matter again more in the future if — as we can only hope — we reach a new societal and political equilibrium where facts matter more."
The question facing all of us, though, is whether we arrive at that factual society soon enough to have a meaningful impact on the pace and severity of global warming.