Editorials

Climate science under assault

A new study has concluded that last summer’s record-breaking heat wave in Japan, which resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, was the result in part of human-induced global warming. Moreover, the authors warn, if temperatures continue to rise, extreme heat will become “a usual situation” in Japan within a few decades, and the number of such days will nearly double current levels.

In the face of this alarming trend, it is imperative that the world better understand every cause and consequence of global warming. Yet the United States is not only downplaying the significance of climate change, but is taking steps to suppress efforts to understand it.

Since its inception, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has been skeptical of, if not openly hostile to, the argument that climate change is real and is caused by human activity. The administration’s approach to climate change was made plain by Vice President Mike Pence who, when asked about the national security impact of human-induced climate change in a recent interview, repeatedly refused to provide a direct answer. Instead, he complained about other countries’ policies, criticized the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan — which the Trump administration last week rolled back by relaxing controls on carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations — and retreated to a claim that the answer “is going to be based upon the science.”

That makes the Trump administration’s seeming hostility to scientific conclusions it does not like more troubling. A new assessment by Politico shows that the U.S. government has “refused to publicize dozens of government-funded studies that carry warnings about the effects of climate change.” This is not research about the actual causes of climate change; rather it is work that attempts to assess the impact of that change.

Included in the analysis was a study by researchers at the University of Washington, who worked with scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and others in Japan, China and Australia to examine the effects of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere on rice. The study concluded that rice loses protein and minerals, and is also likely to lose key vitamins as plants adapt to a changing environment — a finding that has profound consequences for hundreds of millions of people around the world who depend on rice.

That conclusion confirmed prior findings while showing that a loss of vitamins was also likely. Nevertheless, days before the study was to be released, the Agriculture Department challenged the science behind the peer-reviewed work and declined to publicize it. Fortunately, the other partners were not inhibited and the research got the attention it deserved.

This was not an isolated case. Politico identified at least 45 studies related to climate change since the start of the Trump administration that did not receive any promotion, which in turn reduced the visibility and impact of the work. A spokesperson for the Agriculture Department denied that there were any directives that discouraged the dissemination of climate-related science.

Hostility to such work is clear, nonetheless. Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 Paris climate change accord soon after taking office and last month the U.S. refused to sign a communique at a meeting of the Arctic Council — created to protect that region’s environment — unless it did not mention climate change. His administration has rolled back environmental protections and cut budgets across the entire government related to research. Finally, it is reportedly developing a “red team” to challenge the conclusions of climate scientists in hopes of undermining the entire body of work.

U.S. hostility to the scientific consensus means that other countries must step up. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised to make innovation in tackling environmental challenges a priority at this week’s Group of 20 summit in Osaka. That is one step. To succeed, entire societies must respond. Japanese businesses are beginning to do their part. Last month, they set up a consortium to improve reporting on the financial impact of climate-related risks and opportunities to spur green investments and promote innovation. More than 160 Japanese firms now back the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures, making Japan the world’s largest supporter of the initiative.

That accomplishment means nothing, however, until Japanese firms start using that information to guide investment decisions. One international study of 82 big companies put Japanese and South Korean firms at the bottom of the list of enterprises taking steps to address climate change. The study blamed the absence of local regulations that would motivate firms to take action. After Osaka, the government needs to turn its attention to developments at home and set an example for other nations to follow.

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