Science academies call for climate action

Our National Academy of Sciences and its counterparts in a dozen other nations issued a joint statement today calling on world leaders to “to limit the threat of climate change” by weaning themselves off of their dependence on fossil fuels. They also called for a move to sustainable resource use – which, as we all know, would not include the continued full-throttle mining of finite, millions-of-years-old coal, oil, and natural gas.

The academies that issued the request for action are known as the G8 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus 5 (the largest developing countries: China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa). These science academies represent some nations that do not yet work together on discussing, much less tackling, climate change.

One might argue that their message is just another “duh” moment. Who doesn’t think that we should live within our means, that we should stop warming a planet that is already suffering from a low-grade fever, and that we should make a transition to less polluting fuels? In fact, what makes this succinct, two-page statement interesting, I believe, is that it doesn’t just tell us to conserve and bite the bullet, but that it also essentially implores governments to invest in research with an eye to the long view – at the same time studying what can reasonably be attacked now.

For instance, it urges all countries to:

– improve not only their predictions of climate-change repercussions at global, national and local levels, but also to begin exploring means for affordably adapting to those repercussions at all government levels

– develop incentives to get their populations to move toward less-carbon-intensive fuels

– target research into greenhouse-gas-reduction strategies and -energy technologies

– and support the G8+5 governments to – no later than next year – to set a timetable, to commit the funding, and to coordinate plans for building a significant number of demonstration plants to capture, store, and sequester carbon.

The new statement also argues that research could point the way towards developing a stable climate via such things as reforestation and “geoengineering technologies.” Such measures “would complement our greenhouse gas reduction strategies,” it said.

The document didn’t spell out what those geoengineering measures might be, so I asked for clarification from Michael Clegg, Foreign Secretary of the NAS, here in Washington.

“These are essentially engineering approaches to soaking up carbon dioxide,” he explains. “One suggestion that has been made in the past, for example, is the so-called fertilization of the oceans with iron. But none of this has been looked at very carefully from a scientific perspective,” he notes. “So what the statement commits is to organize a conference to look more carefully at some of these possibilities to see whether they’re plausible – whether any of them offer solutions.”

Such a conference could occur within the next 18 months, Clegg says, although he adds that no actual dates have been discussed.

The timing of the new statement by the academies is not random. It’s one of a series that have been developed, starting in 2004, to help shape discussions at the summer meeting of the G8 powers.

I asked what the new short document was likely to achieve that, for instance, the recent book-length tomes by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have not. “This basically complements the IPCC work, which is actually cited in the document,” he said. Since catalyzing action sometimes requires years of persistent and consistent prodding, he said it’s important to keep such pivotal issues “in front of the global community.”

In fact, he notes, the current document “is kind of a continuation of the effort that we’ve made over the last four years in these G8 academies statements.” The 2004 statement focused on climate issues, and the one a year later argued that climate change not only was occurring but also could be attributed mostly to human activities. Last year, the academies’ G8 statement noted that “Our present energy course is not sustainable,” so cleaner fuels should be introduced.

“In the past,” Clegg adds, “these statements by the G8-plus-5 academies have actually gotten some serious treatment in the governmental discussions at the G8 meetings. And some of the text has ended up in the last year or two in the G8 communiqués.”

By the way, you might have noticed that my blogs have had a lot of climate entries lately. Believe me, I’m not seeking them out. They’re just raining down on me. Climate seems to be the topic of the season, if not the year or even the century.

The good news, if there can be good news in what seems to be cascading climate catastrophes, is that countries seem to be reluctantly acknowledging that action, even if costly, must begin imminently. The questions now are: What type of actions should we consider, how should we budget for them, how far will existing technologies get us, and how aggressively do we have to invest in research on next-gen technologies?

So, expect to see plenty more climate entries. This is where the action is and likely will remain throughout the foreseeable future.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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