Senators and Scientists Play Climate Dating Game

Democrats agree on the need for action on global warming, but not so much on how visible scientists should be in the policy debate.

BIG PINE KEY, FL - SEPTEMBER 11: Phillip Hughes an Ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspects dead buttonwood trees as live mangrove trees grow nearby after the buttonwood over a recent period of time has succumbed to salt water incursion on September 11, 2013 in Big Pine Key, Florida. As sea levels rise scientists continue to observe the changes in the vegetation which Hughes said, over the last 50 years has seen the Florida Keys upland vegetation dying off and being replaced by salt tolerant vegetation. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
National Journal
Clare Foran
Feb. 10, 2014, 3:49 p.m.

A co­ali­tion of Sen­ate Demo­crats is push­ing to shine a spot­light on cli­mate change in the me­dia. And they want sci­ent­ists to play a star­ring role.

“When you talk about get­ting me­dia at­ten­tion it’s im­port­ant to also talk about who should be par­ti­cip­at­ing in that dis­cus­sion,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a mem­ber of the newly min­ted Sen­ate Cli­mate Ac­tion Task Force. “We’ll be work­ing to bring more voices in­to the con­ver­sa­tion and that will cer­tainly in­clude sci­ent­ists.”

Last month, mem­bers of the task force, a group of Sen­ate Demo­crats com­mit­ted to cli­mate ac­tion, sent a let­ter to the heads of ma­jor tele­vi­sion net­works, in­clud­ing ABC, CBS and NBC, ask­ing them to give more me­dia at­ten­tion to cli­mate change. The plea cited a study by left-lean­ing me­dia watch­dog Me­dia Mat­ters in­dic­at­ing that Sunday news shows spent only 27 minutes talk­ing about cli­mate change in the past year.

Mem­bers of the task force say the is­sue de­serves in­creased at­ten­tion in the news. But they don’t just want to spark de­bate, they want to shape the con­ver­sa­tion.

“We want to make sure cli­mate den­iers and sci­ent­ists do not get equal time. Me­dia cov­er­age needs to be de­cis­ively in fa­vor of the facts, “Sen. Bri­an Schatz, D-Hawaii, a mem­ber of the task force, said. “Mak­ing sure sci­ence is front and cen­ter in terms of me­dia at­ten­tion is cer­tainly go­ing to be part of our strategy.”

How do Demo­crats plan to raise the pro­file of sci­ent­ists? To start, they’re look­ing to use good old fash­ioned PR. 

“We need to work with sci­ent­ists to pitch stor­ies to the ma­jor me­dia out­lets that high­light the ur­gency of this is­sue,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said. “Sci­ent­ists aren’t al­ways good at self-pro­mo­tion so we’ve got to make sure that the con­sensus po­s­i­tion finds its way onto the air­waves.”

Sen. Rob Men­en­dez, D-N.J., an­oth­er mem­ber of the task force, said he will en­cour­age cli­mate sci­ent­ists “to do what they can to raise aware­ness about the facts that we all know to be true.”

There’s just one prob­lem. Demo­crats can’t agree on wheth­er sci­ent­ists should wade in­to a de­bate over policy.

Schatz, who met with CBS Pres­id­ent Dav­id Rhodes last month along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to dis­cuss me­dia cov­er­age of cli­mate change said sci­ent­ists should be able to com­ment on the po­ten­tial im­pact of policies de­signed to mit­ig­ate cli­mate change.

Oth­er mem­bers of the task force took a slightly dif­fer­ent tack.

“It’s im­port­ant for sci­ent­ists to talk about the cer­tainty of cli­mate change but people need to hear from law­makers about the dif­fer­ent policy op­tions we have for deal­ing with it,” Murphy said.

The ex­tent to which Demo­crats can iron out dif­fer­ences of opin­ion may de­term­ine their abil­ity to shape the con­ver­sa­tion on cli­mate change that’s play­ing out in the press.

Dis­agree­ment among Demo­crats is noth­ing new. Cli­mate hawks like Box­er and Sen. Shel­don White­house of Rhode Is­land routinely talk about cli­mate change in the con­text of rising car­bon emis­sions while more mod­er­ate Demo­crats like Sen. Mark Be­gich of Alaska be­lieve the is­sue should be framed in terms of its cost to tax­pay­ers.

The note of dis­cord among task force mem­bers, however, shows that even among the most staunch ad­voc­ates of cli­mate ac­tion with­in the Demo­crat­ic party, there re­mains a lack of con­sensus on how to win pub­lic sup­port for the cause.

Sim­il­ar ten­sions ex­ist with­in the sci­entif­ic com­munity. For cli­mate sci­ent­ists, ex­plain­ing the sci­ence be­hind cli­mate change is un­con­tro­ver­sial, but talk­ing about policy is a sticky sub­ject.

“If you want to ad­voc­ate for one policy or an­oth­er that’s something that’s based not only on ex­pert­ise but also on val­ues so sci­ent­ists need to be clear about what the sci­ence is and what their val­ues are,” Dr. Gav­in Schmidt, a cli­mate sci­ent­ist at the NASA God­dard In­sti­tute for Space Stud­ies, said.

For now, sci­ence and ideo­logy aren’t likely to part ways any­time soon.”Sci­ence and polit­ics are al­ways get­ting tangled up,” Dr. Daniel Sare­witz, co-dir­ect­or of Ari­zona State Uni­versity’s Con­sor­ti­um for Sci­ence, Policy and Out­comes, said. “The un­der­ly­ing point is that every­one wants to have sci­ence on their side. It lends a kind of nat­ur­al au­thor­ity that every­one grav­it­ates to­ward.”

Re­gard­less of a di­vide among law­makers, Demo­crats in both cham­bers of Con­gress are ad­van­cing the mes­sage that cli­mate change poses a real and sub­stan­tial threat and re­quires im­me­di­ate at­ten­tion. Mem­bers of the House Safe Cli­mate Caucus, led by Rep. Henry Wax­man, D-Cal­if., an­nounced last week that they would high­light the is­sue in weekly op-eds and you­tube videos.

All this comes in the face of what has largely been Re­pub­lic­an in­ac­tion, a fea­ture of the de­bate that Demo­crats are quick to em­phas­ize. “Re­pub­lic­ans are do­ing noth­ing, but we will not be si­lenced,” Wax­man said last week at an event to an­nounce the new push for cli­mate ac­tion.

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