Editorial Writers Consider the Water Crisis, Informed by UCS Experts

October 23, 2013 | 9:43 am
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

I was in Newport, Rhode Island for a conference of the Association of Opinion Journalists October 13 through 16. It was wonderful to escape the fog of Capitol Hill and be in the company of rational, thoughtful people who did not dispute the reality of human-caused climate change. The theme of the conference was “Water: A Precious Commodity.” Two UCS experts, Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, the director of our Center for Science and Democracy, and Angela L. Anderson, the director of our Climate and Energy program, participated on conference panels.

The initial panel, on which Dr. Rosenberg spoke, focused on science and public policy. It was moderated by Cornelia Dean, a longtime highly respected science writer for the New York Times. “We campaign for science and the role of science in public policy,” he told the group of some of the nation’s most influential editorial writers. He explained that the Center’s recent forum on fracking did not intend to dictate whether communities should permit fracking or not, but to promote the public’s right to know about the consequences of fracking, both good and bad. “There are real risks” (to fracking), he said.  “We shouldn’t pretend they don’t exist.”

Dean commented that Congress had refused to give the Federal Emergency Management Agency the authority to map the nation’s coastlines in order to prepare for climate change and severe weather impacts. She asked about the emergence of a “constituency of ignorance,” in American public life.

Rosenberg conceded that there are “real incentives for people not to want to know,” acknowledging that recognition of coastline erosion in the future might stand in the way of development or affect existing property values. But in a response to another audience question, he stressed that “there are people who want to be informed, and not just be told what to think.”

Bob Davis, AOJ president, and editorial page editor of the The Anniston (AL) Star observed that “science is seeking a rational answer” to public policy questions, but the politics often doesn’t address the “most rational or wisest answer.” He asked: “Where do you engage?”

Rosenberg noted that while in the past scientists may have been reluctant to engage in public policy debates, “there has been a generational shift with young scientists. They are asking ‘How can I have a greater impact?’”

Topher Hamblett (right) and Rachel Calabro of Save the Bay explain the impacts of climate change in Newport, Rhode Island.

Topher Hamblett (right) and Rachel Calabro of Save the Bay explain the impacts of climate change in Newport, Rhode Island.

Water is a less polarizing issue

Anderson’s panel focused more specifically on America’s water issues. She discussed a recent UCS report comparing how much water is used by various electric power generation methods. Her message and that of her fellow panelists: While some federal and state policymakers may still deny climate change, water is a far less politicized subject. Regardless of whether you believe climate change has contributed to the recent droughts, our growing thirst for water is causing collisions between energy producers, cities and towns, and agriculture. The UCS study demonstrates that the best way to conserve water is to rely more on energy efficiency and renewable energy, such as wind power. This emphasis on protecting water supplies may bring about positive changes even in those states, such as Texas, where fossil fuels have been king.

If editorial writers and columnists needed any more evidence of the need to address climate change, Newport itself offered lessons. The citizen group Save the Bay took conference participants on a boat ride around Newport’s coast. On a brilliantly sunny afternoon, with the waters of Narragansett Bay as a backdrop, one could see new development perched at the edges of fragile coast line. Buildings were marked at the points where high tide and storm surge had forced the waters to creep up ever higher. Founded in 1970, Save the Bay first focused on improving water quality and fighting against the construction of power plants and other facilities that would harm the beauty of the bay and further degrade its water quality.

Engaged citizens shed more light on the crisis

This group of “citizens who care,” as one Save the Bay staffer put it, shows the power of activism to make a difference, helped by federal laws like the Clean Water Act. The bay’s water is not perfect, but “it is more usable, fishable, and swimmable” today than it was 30 years ago, said Topher Hamblett, the group’s director of advocacy. But climate change has offered new challenges. Warming water is affecting the bay’s ecology, Hamblett said, and promoting the growth of algae, which is harming the region’s fish. And efforts to prevent pollutant-laden storm water from reaching the bay are impeded by “tight budgets” at the local, state and federal levels.

But Save the Bay’s activists soldier on. They know that part of their mission is communicating the urgency of the problem to the nation’s opinion leaders. It was pretty clear that a boat ride is sometimes worth 1,000 words.