Science doesn't exist in a vacuum. In most facets of life, non-scientists often make a lot of decisions about science-based policy.
To navigate these cultural and governmental machinations, in light of the climate crisis, we spoke with Dr. Rachel Licker.
A senior climate scientist with the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Licker previously spent time as a foreign affairs officer with the U.S. Department of State.
In our talk, we discussed how the Biden administration has reacted to the climate crisis, the importance of "environmental justice," fossil fuel companies paying their fair share, and more.
How has the Biden administration held up to its promises on addressing the climate crisis so far?
The Biden administration in general has made climate change one of its top priorities. And we saw that literally on day one in the executive order with respect to climate change. He has appointed a number of individuals to positions that are both at the cabinet and other really high-level positions from the get-go and is quickly filling the ranks.
The policies that he's been putting out there are definitely the most progressive on climate change that we've seen today. So far, so good.
I think one of the things that has really stood out about the way that the Biden administration has been elevating climate change is that, in concert, he has elevated environmental justice into the discussion in a way that it has not been elevated before.
This was spelled out very clearly in the executive order — environmental justice needs to be a core component of all measures.
Ensuring that environmental justice communities are actually at the table and that they are receiving significant funding and getting the support that is long overdue — that’s a key component of climate action that has largely been missing at a high level to date. I think that is another big signal that they're taking it really seriously.
Can you tell us more about what environmental justice means?
Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
For example, some communities live close to coal burning power plants. Other regions may benefit from the energy production, but these communities deal with those air pollution consequences.
These are often communities that have been marginalized largely to date.
Biden’s executive order mentions ending fossil fuel subsidies wherever possible by 2022. Is that possible? Can you discuss what subsidies are and how they work with energy?
Fossil fuel corporations, historically, have received subsidies that were trying to lower the cost of domestic energy production.
There are direct subsidies that go to fossil fuel corporations and there are tax benefits. But I would say, probably the most important subsidies to know are the external harms that fossil fuel corporations are not responsible for paying for.
There was a study that came out by researchers at Birmingham University and Harvard University, for example, that showed that fossil fuel air pollution causes more than 10 million premature deaths each year — and that's just one of the impacts obviously.
Those are the kinds of externalities that they've not been responsible for to date. They’re really important subsidies that we need to be addressing.
The IMF actually conducted a study and found that in 2017, when you total both the direct subsidies that they receive as well as the external harms, those subsidies total $5.2 trillion, which is 6.5% of the world's GDP.
When we're talking about fossil fuel subsidies, I think it's really important to also discuss what fossil fuel companies knew. It’s not just that harms are happening now, but it's that fossil fuel companies have known since at least the 1960s about the harms that are related to their products.
They carried out savvy campaigns to create confusion among the American public that were aimed at preventing climate action so they wouldn't lose business. So, we're living in a world that they created.
And you have all these communities out there who are having to foot the bill for adaptation measures to deal with large wildfires or coastal erosion or reduced crop yields. Why should the communities be footing the bill for this?
Can clean energy overtake fossil fuels with enough subsidizing? And if so, how will subsidizing play a role in clean energy growth?
Right now, renewable energy resources can be and are competitive with fossil fuels. But we really need more robust and durable policy support to accelerate the clean energy momentum that is already underway.
In the United States, in our energy sector, new capacity additions from wind and solar power are actually already out-competing new capacity additions from fossil fuel-based power. Coal is on the retreat.
We definitely have a long way to go to get to 100% clean power, but renewable energy resources are increasingly cost competitive.
The fact that we're subsidizing an industry that is causing all these harms and not fully propping up the clean energy industry is something that obviously needs to be rectified immediately.
The Science Integrity Act has been introduced in congress. Why do scientists need protection from political interference?
I think the baseline thing to say is that science is a key pillar of a healthy democracy. Science's role — the reason it's so important — is because it provides us with an ability to objectively understand the world around us.
If we don't have science that’s free of political interference, then we're at risk of decisions being made at the whims of politicians in a way that is not going to be of benefit to the country at large. It's really in the public’s interests that we have strong scientific integrity policies so that our research enterprise is able to operate free of political interference.
One of the best examples of this was Sharpiegate. That was, to me, such a crystallizing moment for the US public to see exactly what we're talking about with the need for scientific integrity.
You may recall during the Trump administration, Trump showed this altered map of Hurricane Dorian’s path that included the state of Alabama. The public viewed it and the weather forecast office down there started getting calls with Alabamians confused, wondering if they should prepare to get hit by a hurricane.
The weather forecast office had to issue a statement saying no, that's not actually true. But then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — the agency that houses the National Weather Service — released an unsigned statement that supported Trump’s unsubstantiated claims. That led to an investigation that found that there were two officials who violated the Scientific Integrity Act of NOAA.
But, because of the state of the policies that we had in place, there really weren't any ramifications for them doing so. Nothing really happened, even though we know that they violated that policy.
We need to have ramifications for if people do something like that because it causes public harm. That’s what this new Scientific Integrity Act is meant to do — put stronger policies in place that have the force of law behind it so there are also consequences for people.
We need scientists to feel free to share their work unafraid of intervention, so they don't feel that they're going to get fired.
This is science paid for by all of our tax dollars. We all have the right to know what they're finding out. If you have climate scientists who are finding out that climate change is happening because of our fossil fuel emissions and it's going to cause harms in the form of x, y, and z, the public has the right to know that.
An administration getting in the way of that is not only wrong, it's almost a theft of the resources that the public's put into that work.
Is it too late to make the broad cultural and governmental changes we need to avert the climate crisis?
No, is my short answer.
And the reason I say that is because every fraction of a degree matters. We already see that climate change is happening, and we know that everything that we do is going to help to create a safer world. Obviously, there are gradations of that.
But anything we do now is going to help to create a safer future.