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Homeland and Climatic Security at the Crossroads of Science and Policy

by Rafael Sagarin, 2002-2003 GSA Congressional Science Fellow
Reprinted from GSA Today, v. 13, no. 6 (June 2003)

Every morning, I pass through security at the Longworth House Office Building. Connected to the Capitol building through a series of labyrinth-like tunnels, my building should be one of the most secure places on Earth. Yet for the six months I've been working there, security has been exactly the same. The Capitol police check cars by opening their trunks and glancing in before waving them into the underground garage. People pass through a metal detector that has not once beeped about the keys in my pocket. This "standing target" approach to homeland security is a good example of the failure of science to penetrate deeply into the political world.

Specifically, it is a failure of evolutionary scientists to get involved in the homeland security debate. In his 1993 book, Evolution and Escalation, evolutionary biologist Gary Vermeij wrote that when faced with an adaptable enemy, you may either adapt yourself, move away, or go extinct. Vermeij was talking about the evolutionary dance between snails and crabs in the fossil record, but he might as well have been talking about the U.S. and Al Qaeda. Unfortunately, I have seen almost no discussion on Capitol Hill of how our security systems should evolve, or of whether consolidating all of our security apparatus under one giant Office of Homeland Security will make us more or less adaptable to terrorist threats.

The failings and occasional successes of infusing science into public policy are evident every day on Capitol Hill. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the issue of global climate change. Success can be seen in the rapid change in the publicly stated attitudes about climate change among political leaders and politically powerful business interests. Both success, and more often, failure, can be seen in the plans of action proposed to deal with climate change.

The Bush Administration's initial tone on climate change reflected the view that there was insufficient evidence to support the theory of climate change or to link human activity to climate change. Accordingly, President Bush announced early in his term that he would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. But this view was soon rebuked by two widely publicized scientific reviews of climate change science: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) "Third Assessment Report" of 2001, and a follow-up report by the National Academies that was commissioned by the Bush administration. Both reports stated that observed and predicted future climate change can be attributed in part to human activity.

In the six months I have spent in Washington, I have heard several high-level administrators announce that climate change is indeed occurring and is likely to be in part due to human causes. Even ExxonMobil, which has held out longer than its competitors in acknowledging the threat of climate change, has discussed its product's role in climate change in briefings on the Hill. I believe that it is the willingness of the thousands of scientific contributors to the IPCC and National Academies reports to put their findings in a highly publicized forum that has caused this radical shift in attitudes of powerful political players.

Nonetheless, success has been limited in scientists' ability to shape policy responses to climate change. The main plan of action proposed by the Bush administration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas "intensity" (the ratio of emissions to economic output) by 18% in 10 years. I consider this plan a voluntary plan to do nothing. Consider that with no plan in place, greenhouse gas intensity declined 16% from 1990 to 2000, but overall emissions of greenhouse gases increased. Additionally, at least some of the reduction in emissions due to our intensity reduction will be transferred to another country because of a shift from manufacturing to service based economy. If manufacturing is shifted to a greenhouse gas intensive economy, such as China's, global intensity and emissions could increase.

On the scientific frontier, administration actions have shifted from positive, to negative, to uncertain. On the positive side, the administration proposed in fall 2002 a broad expansion of current scientific efforts known as the Climate Change Strategic Plan (CCSP). Over 1,200 people, including some of the country's leading climate change scientists, attended a public meeting to comment on the plan in December 2002, and the National Academies were asked to review the plan.

The National Academies' report on the CCSP, released in late February 2003, echoed the sentiments of many of the scientists I talked with during the December CCSP meeting. The academies noted that the plan lacked clear goals and priorities, standards for measuring progress, timetables for completion, or realistic assessments of the feasibility of proposed actions. Most damning of all was the finding that no new funding for climate change science was provided in the president's 2004 budget proposal.

Scientists should watch carefully to see if the recommendations of the National Academies and the hundreds of public comments (all published at are incorporated into the final CCSP, due in the end of April 2003. Equally important, Congress must approve a budget that includes significant increases from the president's proposal for climate change science. This will be a difficult feat in times of war, tax cuts, and massive budget deficits.

This manuscript is submitted for publication by Raphael Sagarin, 2002-2003 GSA-U.S. Geological Survey Congressional Science Fellow, with the understanding that the U.S. government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for governmental use. The one-year fellowship is supported by GSA and by the U.S. Geological Survey, Department of the Interior, under Assistance Award No. 02HQGR0141. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the author and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. government. Raphael Sagarin can be reached at