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When It Comes To Policymaking, The Rules Don't Apply To Climate Change


We usually turn to NPR blogger Adam Frank to explore ideas about outer space. Today, he has this commentary on the messy business of politics and how it's affecting the climate.

ADAM FRANK, BYLINE: Earlier this month, the U.S. Senate changed its rules regarding filibusters. And while that got treated like the big deal it is, the Senate can change those rules again, bringing the filibuster back if it wanted to. And what's true of filibusters is equally true for most of policy. No matter how bad you think a new law or rule is, in principle it can get undone in the next administration or the next Congress. I mean, that's just how politics works.

Unfortunately, that's not how climate works. On Saturday, people from around the country will take to the streets in the March for Science. Organizers say that the point of the march is not to make the science political. Instead, the goal is to highlight for politicians the need to take the reality science lays bare seriously as a guide in making policy. That's why I'm going to the march because when it comes to climate change, we're not going to get a do-over.

See, what we call the climate is really a super complex planetary machine. It's a machine made out of swirling oceans, vast flows of air, mountains getting built and then eroded and zillions of kinds of critters, all doing their thing in a big interconnected boogaloo of matter and energy. But ever since the Industrial Revolution started, we've been tossing monkey wrenches into that machine. By dumping a hundred million years of stored energy - in the form of burnt fossil fuels - back into the climate machine, we've been pushing hard on the planet. To be specific, we're pushing Earth out of the state we found it in when we started our little project of civilization about 10,000 years ago.

So if you want to understand what's happening, imagine Earth's climate machine as a huge boulder sitting at the top of a hill. All that CO2 we're dumping into the atmosphere is like rocking the big boulder back and forth. If we keep messing around this way, the boulder's going to start rolling down the hill to somewhere else. And once it gets going, we are not going to be able to stop it. That's why we don't get a climate do-over.

Climate change is a problem unlike all other problems in politics. The four-year cycles of presidential elections, they mean nothing to the climate machine, which has its own rules and its own time scales. That's one of the main messages science marchers want politicians of all stripes to understand. Decades of research has shown us how the planet's climate works. Now policymakers have their own work to do. Climate change is uncharted territory in politics, and the old rules no longer apply.

So with intelligence, resolve and imagination, our leaders need to understand that the clock is ticking, and every year wasted is time we won't get back.


SHAPIRO: Adam Frank teaches astrophysics at the University of Rochester and blogs at npr.org.


Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.