Climate change? Whatever changes this week, some things will stay the same.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet – William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet)

What’s past is prologue – William Shakespeare (The Tempest)

Saturday’s print edition of the Washington Post juxtaposed two front-page headlines, both above the fold. Snippets from the respective articles, followed by brief commentary:

Change of ‘climate’: offices rebrand under Trump.

“Climate change” is out. “Resilience” is in. “Victims of domestic violence” are now “victims of crime.” Foreign aid for refugee rights has become aid to protect “national security.” “Clean energy investment” has been transformed into just plain “energy” investment

…Some of the most striking examples of rebranding come from agencies dealing with energy and the environment, where references to “climate change” and “clean energy” have sometimes disappeared…[The Post article goes on to provide a number of concrete examples.]

Prior experience provides many examples/periods of such rebranding. The transition from the Clinton to the Bush administration saw a switch in emphasis in climate-change framing from warming-as-a-global-average and societal response founded on mitigation alone (hitting the CO2 off-switch) to the impact of climate change on the frequency, intensity, duration, and location of extremes, and more emphasis on adaptation.

NOAA personnel and retirees might remember a similar rebranding earlier on, when the Reagan administration came in at the start of the 1980’s. At that time NOAA’s research was conducted in a Research and Development Line Office (RD). The Reaganites thought that only basic research was the proper role of government. They wanted NOAA to stand down from applied research and all development activities such as AWIPS and other weather technology and Sea Grant (sound familiar?). George Ludwig, then the Environmental Research Laboratories Director, fell on his sword over this directive. He maintained, with some logic, that development was the step needed if the American public were to benefit from the basic research. Joe Fletcher would later take over as the assistant administrator for RD. He made no changes whatsoever, but simply repeated, at every public opportunity, some variation on the theme everything you see going on here is basic research[1]. Threatened budget cuts were averted, and today’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR) was born.

At G7, Trump’s views on Paris pact ‘evolving’.

TAORMINA, Italy — Forceful face-to-face talks this week with fellow world leaders left President Donald Trump “more knowledgeable” and with “evolving” views about the global climate accord he’s threatened to abandon, a top White House official said Friday. Trump also was impressed by their arguments about how crucial U.S. leadership is in supporting international efforts.

 The president’s new apparent openness to staying in the landmark Paris climate pact came amid a determined pressure campaign by European leaders. During Friday’s gathering of the Group of 7 wealthy democracies — as well as at earlier stops on Trump’s first international trip — leaders have implored him to stick with the 2015 accord aimed at reducing carbon emissions and slowing potentially disastrous global warming…

This Saturday headline has already been replaced by news media reports that the United States will indeed go ahead and withdraw from the accord. In the fast-paced, mercurial environment that is 2017-Washington, it’s risky to venture a prediction here as to what the administration will decide.

But what matters far more than the thoughts and actions of a small handful of leaders are the opinions, decisions, and actions of 320 million Americans. And if what’s past is indeed prologue, then those might oddly enough, be more predictable.

Fact is, we’ve seen this movie before. Eight years of Democratic executive-branch control from 1992-2000 found Vice-Presidential leadership ahead of the American people on the climate issue. On a 95-0 vote, the Congress in 1997 expressed disapproval of any international agreement that did not require developing countries to make emission reductions and “would seriously harm the economy of the United States”. The Kyoto protocol was never submitted to Congress for ratification.

But when the presidency fell into Republican hands in early 2001 and the new president asserted he didn’t see climate change as much of a problem, the country did a bit of an about face. People said in effect… Hold on! We’re more concerned than that! President Bush wound up convening an NAS panel to assess the most recent IPCC report at the time and ultimately accepted the conclusions of both.

If President Trump should decide the United States should withdraw from its commitments, don’t be surprised if the next several months show a similar popular reaction this time around.

Such a scenario is made even more likely given the differences between Kyoto and Paris. The Paris accord had much more the flavor of a church potluck. Each country brought to the table a contribution that its circumstances and current domestic politics would support versus conforming to a set model. That’s why the United States, along with 146 other nations, ratified in the first place. And U.S. participation reflects actions already underway by private enterprise, by fifty states, 3000 counties, countless local governments, and tens of millions of individuals. Most of these actions reflect compelling self-interests: the ever-lowering cost of renewable energy; interest in preserving as much coastal real estate and economic activity as possible in the face of sea-level-rise; commitment to transparency in return for transparency from others; and commitment to progress in the face of the shaming that is the alternative. [This latter is not unlike that church potluck; no one wants to show up to such events empty-handed without excuse.]

To sum up. Nature has no name for climate change. By any other name the challenge remains real, and the problems remain the same. And the brilliance of the Paris accord, as opposed to its predecessors, is the way it builds on fundamental, nigh-on-universal, human interests and values, not the short-sighted preferences or interests of a few.

This week the president and his team may decide the U.S. should remain committed to the Paris accord. Reason for cheer. Or they may decide to withdraw. In which case Americans will rediscover their own, preexisting interests and commitments. A (different) reason for cheer. In either instance, the world and its people will be one week closer to coping with the climate change challenge.


[1] Throughout this period, Joe, who was former military, would remind OAR staff in private of the advice of the great Chinese general Sun Tzu, which he would paraphrase this way: “you can retreat all you want, but never lose a battle.”

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