Saturday, January 31, 2009

President Obama puts science in its rightful place

by David Suzuki

Science has taken a beating over the past few years – especially in the U.S. and Canada. We’ve put up with incessant braying from climate change deniers who, in the words of Guardian writer George Monbiot, "ignore an entire canon of science, the statements of the world’s most eminent scientific institutions, and thousands of papers published in the foremost scientific journals" just so they can "pick up a crumb: a crumb which then disintegrates" in their palms.

George Bush’s administration was so anti-science – blacklisting and purging scientists and suppressing or altering scientific studies – that 60 top scientists released a statement in 2004 accusing the administration of distorting scientific fact "for partisan political ends".

Science hasn’t fared much better here in Canada. A year ago, an editorial in the scientific journal Nature criticized our government for its skepticism about the science of global warming, and for muzzling federal scientists and closing the office of the national science adviser.

How refreshing it was, then, to listen to U.S. President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech on January 20.

"We’ll restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost," the president said. "We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories."

What’s even more refreshing is that President Obama is backing those words with action. He has appointed top scientists to key positions, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu as energy secretary, leading marine biologist Jane Lubchenco to head up the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and Harvard physicist John Holdren as head of the White House Office of Science and Technology.

These appointees understand and take seriously the science of climate change. President Obama also understands the geopolitical ramifications of policies that help fuel climate change, as he made clear in his speech when he noted that "each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet."

It was refreshing also to hear the new president talk about choosing "hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord" and about "what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage."

That common purpose and need for courage, as the president knows, extends beyond U.S. borders. After all, migratory Pacific salmon don’t recognize the line between our nations, nor do rivers like the pristine Flathead, which flows from B.C. into Montana and forms the western boundary of Montana’s Glacier National Park, or threatened and endangered species like grizzly bears that breed, feed, and roam across our common border. And the winds that carry pollution and greenhouse gas emissions don’t get turned back at the border for endangering citizens on either side.

Here in B.C. where I live, most of the species at risk – from grizzlies to monarch butterflies – cross back and forth regularly between the two countries. We can’t hope to protect them without strong and complementary habitat-protection policies in both countries. We also need agreement on policies to protect the waters that flow between our two nations. President Obama said during his campaign that he opposes industrial development in the headwaters of the Flathead. "The Flathead River and Glacier National Park are treasures that should be conserved for future generations," he said in reaction to a push by the B.C. government for development in the region, including an open-pit coal mine 40 kilometres from the Canada-U.S. border.

Climate change is another issue that must be addressed quickly and effectively by both nations. President Obama has proposed an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists and economists around the world know that putting a price on carbon emissions, through cap and trade and carbon taxes, is the best way to bring our emissions under control. And while a number of Canadian provinces have joined with U.S. states to implement cap-and-trade programs, our federal government has yet to act.

It’s great to see a U.S. administration that isn’t afraid of real progress and change. But, as President Obama noted, it isn’t just up to the American government to create that change; it’s up to all of us. And while he was referring to American citizens, we Canadians must also join to confront the challenges that both our countries, and indeed, the entire world, face. It’s time to realize that, when it comes to finding solutions to our common problems, science matters.

Science Matters has been running weekly since 1999. To read past columns, please visit

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