As President-elect Biden takes office, he will assume leadership of the U.S. government’s scientific enterprise that was once the envy of the world, but which has been battered and marginalized for the past four years. The Trump administration steadfastly refused to follow the lead of scientific experts during the COVID-19 crisis, promoting scam cures with no evidence and undermining public trust in measures like masks and social distancing. Their failure to heed the advice of experts has had predictably deadly effects: more than 300,000 dead Americans in the grim equivalent of a daily 9/11. Although hard to imagine, the assault on climate science and federal climate scientists has been even more severe. The Biden-Harris administration will face the unprecedented task of putting science before politics and building anew the trust of the public. A president who has pledged to restore the soul of a nation must also restore its analytic capacity.
Starting with his first day in office, President Biden will face the daunting task of not only leading America out of the depths of the worst pandemic in a century but tackling the growing catastrophe of climate change. To meet this challenge, the United States government must immediately signal that it is serious about setting course toward a 100 percent clean economy by midcentury, as scientists have made clear is necessary to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
Alongside an ambitious policy agenda, the president will have to rebuild the federal government’s scientific capacity. The federal climate science apparatus is a vast, powerful and loosely coordinated set of activities across federal agencies, universities and international partnerships. The United States has historically been a scientific powerhouse, with federal energy and climate research originating out of the scientific mobilization undertaken during and after World War II. However, in four years of censorship, funding cuts, attacks on career scientists, and absent leadership, the federal climate science apparatus has suffered devastating workplace losses and programmatic contraction. Left unaddressed, the status quo will hamstring effective climate action in the United States and globally for years to come.
It is not enough simply to replace what has been lost: new challenges require a concentrated expansion of our government’s climate science capacity. At once staggeringly complex and also fundamental to ensuring the basic livability of our communities, climate science and data have to be made more accessible to decision makers across levels of government, and especially to leaders at the local level. As we move beyond an era of expanding our understanding of climate change into a period of urgent, ambitious action to combat a global crisis, the U.S. government must put the strength of its climate science apparatus into connecting the basic sciences with the social, economic and behavioral sciences that will underpin decision-making from the international level to the community level.
This is essential for federal policymaking, and also for much more granular decision-making for frontline communities, businesses, municipal governments and school systems as they weigh matters from how to decarbonize and clean up toxic pollution in their cities to how and when to protect themselves from sea level rise, extreme weather, heat stress, changing patterns of precipitation, and pollution from the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries. While institutional action and national leadership remain the biggest driver of the transition to a clean economy, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that understanding the actions of individuals in a crisis is also vital to any response.
None of these changes will happen without supporting the staff, funding and structures needed to encourage new ways of using science to guide decision-making. In the first 100 days, the Biden administration should prioritize the recruitment of top, diverse talent into the federal climate science workforce; establish guidelines to protect scientific integrity; empower the Office of Science and Technology Policy to centralize prioritization and coordination of climate science; refocus the research of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, NASA and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; and match the leadership of Secretary John Kerry in international and security affairs with strong domestic and economic leadership at the White House.
The administration should also return to the international science and technology efforts abandoned or neglected by their predecessors: the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Arctic Council, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), as well as Mission Innovation, the Major Economies Forum and the Clean Energy Ministerial; the U.S. should join the International Solar Alliance. The climate crisis is a global challenge, and the science informing solutions will require global coordination that begins with a strong domestic strategy. If 2020 has come with any lessons, it’s that trust in science makes the difference between incalculable human suffering and a future in which we thrive.