Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., met with members of the Department of Geological Sciences Friday, May 11 to discuss the importance of informing federal policymakers about climate change and to learn about steps Brown is taking in climate science.
Whitehouse described the challenges he faces in convincing his peers of the inevitability of climate change.
“I think about climate change all the time,” he said. “I think when people look back at my generation, all our economic woes will be asterisks, but future generations will have to live with the changes we’ve caused. And it haunts me.”
Last October, Whitehouse delivered a speech to the Senate saying that it was “catastrophically failing” to address climate change.
University researchers offered their support to the senator in what he called the climate change battle and discussed how their work relates to climate and environmental science.
“Here at Brown, we have people looking at climate from millennial scales to the scales of hundreds of millions of years,” said Assistant Professor of Geological Sciences Jessica Whiteside, who organized the event. “We all stand ready to help you with these issues.”
The department’s Earth Systems History research group examines past conditions on Earth to learn more about our current and future world, learning about past climate conditions from the fossil record and sediment and ice cores.
While Brown researchers have their eyes on the science of Earth’s history, Whitehouse said he thinks a lot about the historical significance of today’s climate change battles. “I’m afraid that history will be imposing that judgment really harshly on this generation of politicians,” he said.
Scientists at Brown also investigate present-day issues, such as the health of Narragansett Bay or the potential for wave and wind energy off the coast of Rhode Island. Due to its position near the Gulf Stream, “Rhode Island has some of the largest wave and wind resources in the U.S., so hopefully we can take advantage of that,” Professor of Engineering Kenny Breuer ’82 said.
Martha Downs, associate director of the Environmental Change Initiative, spoke about the initiative’s mission and strengths. “We look at the ways we change the environment, but also at the ways the environment changes us,” she said. The initiative supports a variety of research projects in the areas of conservation science, land-use change and the flows of key nutrients, carbon and water.
Whitehouse praised the researchers and shared his struggles to improve political acceptance of rigorous findings on climate change.
“What frustrates me is that we’re being out-maneuvered by quasi-scientists,” including groups like the Heartland Institute, he said. “The unlikelihood of someone being an expert in both tobacco science and lead science and climate change science makes you step back and want to see who’s paying them.”
It is important to make scientific findings more accessible to senators, Whitehouse said. One of the most effective ways to convince senators of climate change would be to show them the steps public work officials in their home states are taking to deal with the predicted threats, he added. As one possibility, Whitehouse suggested the creation of a searchable website of agencies that are using reliable climate science to make decisions.
At the end of the meeting, three graduate students toured Whitehouse through select lab facilities in the GeoChem Building to show him “first-hand the process involved in developing a science that has become entirely too politicized in Washington,” wrote Alex Kasprak GS in an email to The Herald. Kasprak showed Whitehouse a mass spectrometer instrument, Aron Buffen GS gave the senator a small sample of 40,000-year-old water and Bronwen Konecky GS pointed out thin layers of gray volcanic ash in a sediment core from a lake in Java, Indonesia.
Kasprak wrote that he hoped “faculty took away the message that scientists need to be more actively engaged in educating the public about their science.”
“The gap between science and policy is growing at an alarming rate in this country, and I think both sides are responsible for bridging this gap in the coming decades,” he added.