Monday, May 13, 2013

President Obama at the 150th Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences

President Obama at the 150th Meeting of
the National Academy of Sciences

George M. Woodwell

          It was an overflow crowd in the Auditorium in the newly renovated building of the National Academy at 2101 Constitution Avenue on the 29th of April. It was first come, first served and some had been waiting for hours to hear the President of the United States address the Academy on its’ 150th anniversary. Electronics expanded the audience to those far away who could listen as I did.  Many remembered when John F. Kennedy as President had taken the same podium just 100 years after Abraham Lincoln had founded the Academy.   John Holdren, President Obama’s Science
Advisor and a member of the Academy, said a few brisk, well spoken words of introduction before Ralph Cicerone, President of the Academy, introduced Mr. Obama.

            Expectations were high. There has never been a moment when a sitting president  faced more intense scientifically defined and obviously dangerous challenges to the public welfare than this president faces at this moment.  The global addiction to fossil fuels has been allowed to run its course beyond the limits of safety to the moment when the climatic change is tipping beyond the point of reversibility. Once that point has been  passed, if it is in fact real as experience suggests and many believe, the feedbacks will be in control and the earth will warm by many degrees despite our attempts to mitigate the process. We will have made a commitment to a rapid warming that can melt all the glacial ice in the world and raise sea level by considerably more than 200 feet.  Continental centers, already afflicted by persistent droughts, will be parched.  Regions will be periodically flooded. Millions will starve. Chaos will reign. The timing for these changes is not the indefinite future. It is now, today, conspicuous, and it is the next decades and the lifetimes of people now living.   

            To deal with this catastrophe we have powerful resources in the form of scientific insights and talents and energy. But all of that must be led and fed with political insights and skill, which is the realm of government. The initiative lies uniquely with the President of the United States and the Congress. It is true that this president has been repeatedly rebuffed by a House of Representatives dominated presently by vandals, a faction of Republicans, who do not believe in government and have done their best to dismantle it. But no one should yield to such vandalism, least of all a president. And a president addressing the pre-eminent scientific institution can assume he is among staunch friends and supporters. He can and must call on those colleagues to join him in a rapid national, and ultimately international, shift away from fossil fuels toward a world of  renewable energy and landscapes carefully managed to preserve their massive carbon stores in plants and soils.  Scientists can, and must, join in leading the way with new technology and existing insights into global biophysics, now ignored.  

             Alas, the President offered none of that. It was friendly talk. No challenge, no inspiration, no hope beyond soft platitudes.  He urged scientists to generate “science-based initiatives to help us minimize and adapt to global threats like climate change”.  It was a gracious, fine talk.  But on the most important scientific issue of his time in office and the next century he gave the day, and possibly the world, to the Republicans and their congressional and corporate friends.

Woodwell is  Distinguished Scientist at the NRDC and Emeritus Founder and Director of the Woods Hole Research Center, Woods Hole, Massachusetts.  He is a member of the NAS.e is He is