Government Folly in the Face of Climate Change

By Sara S. Moore

The great historian, Barbara Tuchman, took a hard look at governmental policy missteps in her 1984 book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. As someone studying modern climate change policy, it is hard not to draw parallels to her definition of folly: The pursuit of policy contrary to the self-interest of the constituency or state involved.

She uses these criteria to zero in on the most serious instances of government folly:

  1. The policy must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not just in hindsight.
  2. A feasible alternative course of action must have been available.
  3. The policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and persist beyond any one political lifetime (“collective government” folly is the more significant problem).

How is hiding climate change science “folly”?

Many governments are acknowledging climate change, even creating new positions to work on the problem. Governments taking slow and measured steps—perhaps too slow and measured—can be viewed as insufficient action, but it is not folly; governments ordering their scientists to study climate change and then burying the results? I call that a classic example of Tuchmanesque folly, and the U.S. federal government and three U.S. states— Nebraska, South Carolina, and North Carolina—have all done it. The press and science-friendly politicians have widely called out the counter-productivity of governments burying climate science. Incorporating the science into planning is (to some degree or another) feasible, since other governments are doing it. The subterfuge is not being done by one person, but government decision-making bodies. Governments burying their own climate science is the definition of folly.

When did the U.S. government bury climate science that it itself ordered?

The details about three states’ climate follies were recently published by the Business Insider’s science desk (read: These States Have Reportedly Tried to Hide Scary Climate Data from the Public [Oct. 30, 2014] and This Is the Climate Report South Carolina Spent Years Hiding [Dec. 29, 2014]). The author points out that “good climate reports were ultimately made public in the above three states, even if the reports are not currently being utilized to their full potential.” While that is true, North Carolina’s infamous official denial of sea level rise data will hamper planning for at least another year.

North Carolina’s House Bill 819, passed in June 2012, prevents the state from basing coastal policy on anything but historical data, ignoring any emerging climate change science through 2016. The governor failed to veto the bill, and it became law in August 2012. Almost simultaneously, in June 2012, a scientific article by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) placed North Carolina’s coast within a 600-mile “hotspot” for sea level rise. North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, had the input of the legislature and the USGS put in front of her at the same time, and she let the political current pull state policy away from where science was pointing. Meanwhile, in 2013 she was replaced by a Republican, Pat McCrory, who installed an oil developer as head of the state’s Coastal Resources Commission and believes in responding to climate change by “cleaning up the environment in a cost-effective way.” Besides this, coastal Carolinians might also worry about the lagging constraints on public safety planning caused by the May 2014 vote by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission to ignore sea level rise impacts projected too far out. Adaptation to sea level rise will—by collective government vote—only prepare for the next 30 years of impacts.

What about the U.S. federal government? Didn’t official climate science denial get voted out in 2008?

There are many ways government can delay or bury the release of inconvenient scientific findings. Many are familiar with the second Bush administration’s direct censorship of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the topic of climate change. The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) was also censored, leading to its senior official Rick Piltz turning whistleblower in 2005. He founded and directed the Government Accountability Project’s Climate Science Watch initiative from 2005 until his death in October 2014 (read his obituary from the NYT). In March 2013 Mr. Piltz told students during a speaking tour that:

“[T]he chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, a former energy lobbyist, would handedit reports, deleting references to the ecological impact of climate change and adding passages that exaggerated the uncertainty of climate-related findings.”

In January 2009, Barack Obama promised in his inaugural speech, “We’ll restore science to its rightful place,” and two months later issued a memorandum to agency heads to improve scientific integrity. Under his administration, the direct White House interference with the EPA and USGCRP may have stopped, but Congress has found ways to delay action on EPA findings about dangerous chemicals, and in the same manner may be playing shell games to delay action on rational, climate change science-based adaptation planning.

Case in point: according to a Center for Public Integrity 2014 report, the EPA has been prepared since 2008 to assert that arsenic is 17 times more potent as a carcinogen than it now reports. However, its arsenic report was delayed procedurally at the Office of Management and Budget for two years. Then, in 2011, Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, with arsenic-laden pesticide companies among his campaign donors, ordered the EPA to have its findings reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences within a House Appropriations Committee report. In 2015 the review is still ongoing, and nothing has changed in federal regulations regarding arsenic in drinking water.

Eventually the “safe” levels of arsenic may be adjusted and avoidable cases of cancer duly avoided. But evidence is mounting that there is no way to be adequately conservative in our emissions of greenhouse gases or adequately liberal in preparing for climate change hazards. According to a Princeton study published in 2013, even if we halted all greenhouse gas emissions today climate change would proceed unabated for centuries—not decades, as previously thought— because of the ocean’s decreasing ability to absorb heat. And this is not accounting for intersecting hazards and feedback loops causing exponential worsening of conditions, difficult to project with today’s climate models.

The EPA’s arsenic case is awful, but the burial of scientific findings about climate change is potentially catastrophic.

Are there any cases of the U.S. government actually adapting to climate change, despite political pressure to delay?

The U.S. Navy has been at the forefront of actually adapting to climate change since before Obama’s restoration of “science to its rightful place.” A Feb. 12, 2015, article by Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone describes how the military has long seen the security threat represented by climate change and taken measures—as long ago as 2003, when the report “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security” (by Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, downloadable here) was published by the Pentagon under Donald Rumsfeld, then President George W. Bush’s defense secretary. The home of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, Norfolk, VA, is within the sea level rise “hotspot” called out by the USGS in 2012 (running from Cape Hatteras, NC to north of Boston, MA). So the Navy has been busy planning for climate change, despite occasional Obama-era interference from

Congressional climate denialists. The Navy started with replacing critical piers that were becoming submerged in the late 1990’s. Goodell asks the officer in charge of mid-Atlantic Navy facilities, Capt. J. Pat Rios, about the rationale for replacing them:

“We didn’t raise the piers because of climate change” […]. He doesn’t quite wink, but almost.

“Then why did you raise them?” I ask.

“Because we needed new piers. And as long as we were building them, it didn’t cost much more to build them higher.”

Thus, the Navy’s climate change adaption planners find their ways to work around a government bent on folly.