Thirty years ago, Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and Republican John Chafee convened a two-day hearing on climate change. Chris Mooney writes in the Washington Post that the top level message of scientists at the time was “eerily” familiar to today.

The hearings feature some of the first testimony of many of the scientists that have become influential in the climate debate in the following years: James Hansen, Robert Watson, Lee Thomas, and Michael Oppenheimer. Even the newly-elected (then Congressman) Al Gore makes an appearance.

Reading the transcripts gives an interesting picture of climate science as it first started to interact with the political arena, before the battlelines were drawn between alarmists and deniers. Even James Hansenwhen asked what he would do about climate change if he were king for a daysaid that he would like to study the issue a little further before making dramatic pronouncements. Compare that to what he says now.

Initially, I reacted similarly to Mooney. A lot of the top-line messages from the science community are the same today as then (e.g. warming expected with doubling of CO2 has the practically same range today, 1.5-4.5 °C, as it did then). There is substantial uncertainty in how climate change will impact society.

But climate science has also developed a lot over the past 30 years. Observationally, we are on a different planet. Observations from satellites and the oceans (the key request from witness Carl Wunsch in 1986) are much more comprehensive. Our conceptual knowledge has advanced too. We know much more about the cycling of carbon dioxide through the oceans and biosphere than we did then, and the importance of aerosol pollution on climate is better understood.

Back then, Hansen was working on detecting a warming signal in global temperatures. We now see it in global and regional surface, satellite, and ocean temperatures. Cutting-edge scientists are continuing to work on fundamental questions, like how clouds might change in a warmer climate, but are now also working to understand climate change’s influence on specific weather events and study the impacts of warming.

The key message for policymakers is that in the 30 years since these hearings, nothing has really broken the basic scientific picture presented back then. Nature has endowed humanity with enough fossil fuels to drive the climate outside historical bounds, which will probably displace and harm many, and the range between the worst-case and the best-case for future warming depends on the vagaries of climate science and how much carbon humans put aloft.

If that picture has withstood three decades of close and careful scrutiny (by some smart and motivated people), why is the science still a matter of active debate?

Probably because there is legitimate scientific debate to be had. We haven’t figured all of the science questions out yet and key uncertainties remain unresolved. Passionate advocates on both sides of the debate can build a narrative, with varying levels of scientific deficiency, to suit their own level of alarm about climate change. Because scientists are a careful bunch, they permit it.

But that should not preclude policymaking.

Another witness at the Chaffee hearings, Theodore Rabb, warned the committee that they should be careful about allowing continued scientific debate to foster complacency on their part. “Scientists are never 100 percent certain,” he said, “[e]ven Newton has been proven to be wrong. That notion of total certainty is something too elusive ever to be sought.” He continued to say that scientists won’t promptly give them a neat and clean story about climate change.

[Note: I’ve transcribed Rabb’s full testimony and appended it to this post, because I think he has interesting things to say about the relationship between scientists and policy and the hesitancy with which scientists become advocates.]

In a blistering section of his testimony, Rabb challenged the idea that we should wait for certainty before taking action.

This caution, this insistence that we have to know more, even when we already know so much, the reluctance to predict profound dislocations, the trust in the saving discontinuity that somehow the trends might stop and turn in a different direction, is as damaging in my view as the obtuseness of those who cite a similar kind of discontinuity for different reasons, those who say that carbon dating is not accurate because there was a huge change in climate a few thousand years ago, and the evidence is that there were no rainbows before Noah’s Ark.

In his opening statement, John Chafee rejected the idea that uncertainty should stall a public response to climate change.

To my mind, the risks are so great that we must avoid continuing on a path that will irreversibly alter our environment unless we know that it is safe to proceed down that path. Scientists have characterized our treatment of the greenhouse effect as a global experiment. It strikes me as a form of planetary roulette.

Right on.

The message that the scientific outlook is about the same now as it was 30 years ago might dishearten (given today’s policy reality), and it is not accurate on the details, but there are reasons to think it actually looks better now. First, the emissions trajectories that were driving concern at the time (they projected a doubling of atmospheric CO2 by 2020-2030), did not come to pass. But also, the costs of non-emissive technologies have dropped dramatically. So decarbonization might look like less of a challenge now.

Either way, and even 30 years from now, politicians will continue having to choose actions despite scientific uncertainty. There is no way around it.

(Rabb’s testimony)

Mr. Chairman, a mere historian in the midst of all of these high-powered scientists has to feel something like Daniel in the lion’s den. But I would remind you that in the biblical story, Daniel did have a somewhat different perspective when it came to grave warnings written by a finger on a wall.

What I would like to offer to you, as briefly as I may, is some small degree of perspective both upon the way scientists, it seems to me, interact with policy and the world, and also on some historical examples that may shed light upon some of the issues that we face right now and in the near future.

I think the contrast between the testimony given to you yesterday, when a number of scientists made clear and unequivocal statements, and the veiling of that testimony today, with discussions of complexity, uncertainty, lack of 100-percent knowledge, and so forth, is a classic example of precisely how scientists have, indeed, always proceeded since the days of the founding of modern science during the scientific revolution in the 17th century.

I think that there is an essential problem that you, as political leaders of this country, have to face in that there is a congenital hesitancy always in the scientific community in making unequivocal statements. Unless every contingency is under control, conclusions and predictions can always be dismissed as premature. As one witness this morning said, we have to be fearful of overreaction, of hysteria, and so forth.

Where I think that comes from is very clearly from the origins of science as a discipline as we know it. At the time of the scientific revolution, Europe, which created modern science, was racked by vicious, religious, and ideological conflicts that really threatened to tear apart the fabric of European civilization.

With the religious wars, and dreadful ideological divisions about them, the scientists at that time made it a cardinal principle of their endeavor that they were going to be an oasis in a wilderness of hate and emotion. The  language of science had to be neutral; it had to be unadorned and objective.

Scientists were rightly proud that their great achievements in the scientific revolution thereafter crossed every imaginable hostile line. Protestants could talk to Catholics. aristocrats mingled with plebeians, and so forth.

Even though many of those divisions have now largely vanished, the scientists continue to behave as though charged advocacy were a mortal sin. The few who do become involved in greater, larger causes are scorned and consigned to the fringes of their calling.

It is true that one has to be wary. Science has been brought to the service of some rather sinister masters. Geologists have seemed to justify racial superiority, biologists have condoned genocide, and so forth. But I don’t think that this is the reason for the distrust of passion. Even the many groups of so-called concerned scientists have not really dented the careful distancing of the orthodox majority.

If neutrality is the watchword on limited issues, when you have portentous doomsday predictions, you have something that is almost by definition unacceptable. Unfortunately, a form of doomsday is exactly what climate might have in store for us.

If the scientific community has a fairly dismal record of rousing public understanding of the full implications of nuclear arsenals, then on climate it has virtually no record at all. If the average citizen were to be asked, on some kind of multiple choice, how to define the buildup of carbon dioxide, I suspect a majority would probably think of it as some type of tooth decay.

This is where the objectivity and the commitment to research for its own sake have brought us. The studies multiply; the fascinating problems are uncovered and dissected; techniques of dazzling ingenuity are invented. Yet, even though I think there is, as you have said this morning, a very widespread consensus on certain predictions, there is no effort to raise alarm bells about the unmistakeable and dangerous direction in which we are headed.

Why is that? Why it is that the few who have lit some beacons, and one example is Stephen Schneider’s book, called “Genesis Strategy,” why is it that people like that have been dismissed as insufficiently scientific and tend to be regarded as untrustworthy?

If nobody can be 100 percent certain, and I think the notion that if we just keep going at research, if we go along a few more decades, of however long it will take, we will eventually be 100 percent certain, I think that is a chimera. Scientists are never 100 percent certain. Even Newton has been proven to be wrong. That notion of total certainty is something too elusive ever to be sought.

I think in the meantime we do have a pretty good idea. We know that if the carbon dioxide increase and the warming continue, America’s Corn Belt will no longer grow corn. It may grow in Saskatchewan, but there isn’t much soil up there. Trees that are now at home in the temperate zone, will not flourish where they now flourish, but who is going to play them all further north, in their new home, and who is going to be ready to plant them all over again a few years hence when they migrate further north? That prospect is not a comfortable few centuries away, as we once thought, but it may be only 50 years and closing fast.

Why should people feel that they must delay when the prospect is not pleasant? The belief that we can sit back and do further research is, in my view, if anything, shattering. The evasions are quite extraordinary. In a world of fond hopes, perhaps the trend will not turn out as badly as indicators now suggest. Maybe the effects will be cushioned by adaptations similar to those that mankind has already undertaken when there were huge dislocations, although, I should add, always with enormous individual and social suffering that have gone with them.

Could it be that we will somehow all muddle through, that it really is someone else’s problem, perhaps the politicians’, or perhaps that opposing trends will somehow nicely and meekly cancel each other out?

This caution, this insistence that we have to know more, even when we already know so much, the reluctance to predict profound dislocations, the trust in the saving discontinuity that somehow the trends might stop and turn in a different direction, is as damaging in my view as the obtuseness of those who cite a similar kind of discontinuity for different reasons, those who say that carbon dating is not accurate because there was a huge change in climate a few thousand years ago, and the evidence is that there were no rainbows before Noah’s Ark.

If the scientists have, in a certain sense, a kind of professional problem, a historian can tell you that you are not going to get nice, neat, clear answers from scientists. I do think, nevertheless, that for the need to prepare, the need to think very directly and immediately about actions that can be taken, you can find another source.

Naturally, as a historian, I would suggest to you that you look at the past, which is littered with societies that were devastated by climatic forces. One example, for instance, is Sri Lanka around 1400. It was a wonderfully stable society. Its agriculture was destroyed by dwindling rainfall and it succumbed to a whole series of fundamental dislocations and resulting cultural changes which still to this day bedevil the island.

In Greenland, there was a flourishing European colony, which around 1700 disintegrated because of declining temperatures. We can see entire populations wiped out, or forced by immense destructions to move huge distances, totally reconstitute their economies and policies, and dismantle ways of life that were centuries old.

There are dozens of such examples, and they don’t diminish in the 20th century as the mere mention of the Dust Bowl or the Sahel will remind us.

In my own field of specialization, 17th century Europe, there was a climatic change that accelerated the shift of power in Europe away from the Mediterranean, which had been the center of European civilization for 2,000 years, to the new powers of the north, in England and the Netherlands. It interrupted an enormous population and economic boom that might have stimulated the industrial revolution decades before it arrived, and it caused hardship at the local level throughout Europe.

The results of that was dreadful, dreadful hardship—starvation, plague, and also a tremendous rise in the powers of government which was now seen for the first time, really, in modern history, as the only body that could try to stave off economic and social disaster. It was the beginning of absolutism, and it was the beginning of the rise of central governments.

We look back at these eruptions, and we see fumbling and often futile efforts to come to terms with the upheavals. We see debilitating consequences, and yet none of those examples involves a climatic break of a magnitude, in the short term, that even approaches what the studies now tell us is likely to happen in the 21st century.

I wish we could look to scientists to issue unequivocal, unmistakeable calls to tell us that we must move now. The only time that I can think of that happening in the 20th century is when Einstein wrote his famous letter of 1939 to President Roosevelt about German nuclear research.

I think the crucial thing there is not only the stature of Einstein who, of course, has not been replaced as a kind of leader of the scientific community, but also the identity of the recipient. I think one of the major reasons that the Einstein letter worked was that it was a politician to whom he wrote, and that is why I think a beginning is now possible, to a large degree because of hearings like these.

What is needed above all is political leadership. In a situation lacking the obvious signs of disaster, but haunted by a distant menace, how else is the world to be galvanized? The baton must pass to those who can make the issue salient, can convince the scientists to face up to these demands, in other worlds, to out political leaders.

The tools you need are certainly at hand. There are dozens of studies of peoples whose lives have been shattered by natural disasters. We have analyzed strategies that have saved communities, and reactions that have merely made bad times worse.

It is not too difficult, for instance, to learn why the potato fungus that caused starvation in Ireland in the 1840’s had a far less malignant effect in those very same years in the Netherlands and on the Dutch who ate just as many potatoes as the Irish, but had no starvation, no massive emigration at all.

It is a matter of political reactions. It is a matter of the policies that are undertaken by the governments at the time. We have one enormous advantage even over the well-organized and environmentally astute Dutch. We have some foreknowledge which they, in 1840, did not have.

We can, therefore, consider now, while there is still time, how we must address the issues that confront us. What will we want to do when Washington gets Miami’s climate? Mr. Chairman, I would suggest that just as war is too important to leave to the soldiers, so the environment is too important to leave to the scientists.

Image by 12019 from Pixabay.