Sandia Labs News Releases

“Toxic” political discussions limit climate response, says invited speaker at Sandia

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The inability of natural and social scientists to convince political leaders that “we’re spinning a roulette wheel over climate change” puts humanity at “extreme risk,” said Massachusetts Institute of Technology management professor Henry Jacoby, former co-director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, during a lecture at Sandia National Laboratories.

He was the eighth invited speaker for Sandia’s Climate Change and National Security Speaker Series.

In an effort to shed light on the wide spectrum of thought regarding the causes and extent of changes in Earth’s climate, Sandia National Laboratories has invited experts from a wide variety of perspectives to present their views in the Climate Change and National Security Speaker Series.


The difficulties in using science to push for mitigation strategies are more political than scientific, Jacoby said, a fitting view perhaps for the director of the social sciences component of the Joint Program’s Integrated Global System Model. He mentioned examples that stretched from the dead end reached by the Kyoto protocols, signed by President Bill Clinton but never submitted to Congress for ratification, to the Heartland Institute’s startling Chicago billboard featuring the face of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski accompanied by the words, “I believe in climate change. Do you?”

Although Jacoby thinks climate discussion “has become toxic in U.S. political discourse,” he is part of a comprehensive effort that integrates MIT’s departments of earth, atmospheric and planetary science, economics and several engineering departments with the Sloan School of Management and the MIT Energy Initiative to gain a wide perspective on the complicated problem of Earth’s climate and what it is doing, he said.

“The motivation to integrate the disciplines was because they were ‘stovepiped’ and didn’t talk to each other,” Jacoby said. The joint cooperative research structure is funded about 60 percent by government grants and the rest by a group of 40 industries and foundations.

He cited a familiar list of problems either caused by or expected soon to be caused by climate change. These include risk to coastal infrastructure and water resources, increased storm intensity and rises in sea level and overall temperatures. However, his group’s global systems model adds an analysis of effects on gross domestic product, energy use and agricultural and health impacts, because “humans are part of Earth’s system, maybe the most important part now,” he told his audience in late May.

To more quickly handle problems appearing in the rapidly proliferating data, he wants to develop “an apparatus that can do uncertainty analysis in 30 hours, not 30 days,” he said.

“We’re facing larger and larger risks: We can mitigate, adapt or suffer,” Jacoby said.

But the real questions and solutions lie in “the complexity of cross-cultural dialogue between science and politics,” he said.

 “A lot of the opposition to climate change is not about science at all, but the role of government in society,” he said.

While New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a team of 20 people working out adaptations that would counter “a severe possible (ocean) surge in the Bowery (the lowest part of Manhattan), there’s not enough planning that could be adopted nationally, “though such work intersects with Sandia’s interest in infrastructure security,” Jacoby said.

To change the nation’s  economic basis to address climate change, he suggested taxing the production of carbon dioxide, “the greatest source of overall temperature rise.”

The alternative is the piecemeal way the country is going, he said. “We can’t handle the issue nationally so we do it individually: cash for clunkers, restrictions on utilities. It all adds up but is more expensive and less effective than a national program. We’re just chipping away.”

The Climate Security lecture series is funded by Sandia’s Energy, Climate and Infrastructure Security Strategic Management Unit and hosted by Rob Leland, director of Computing Research and of Sandia’s Climate Security Program.

Sandia National Laboratories is a multi-program laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

Sandia news media contact: Neal Singer,, (505) 845-7078