A Scientific State Of The Union

Members of Congress, My Fellow Americans,

I come before you tonight to speak about the state of our beloved Union not simply from the perspective of a politician but also as someone who understands that the workings and the results of Science are the key to our collective fate.

We have come to a crossroads and we face difficult choices. Given Science's impact on the multiple, overlapping crises we now face, it's right and just to look to Science and see what we can learn both from its processes and its results. It's right and just to look to Science with an unflinching eye as we desperately seek a path forward in these difficult and uncertain times.

As you all know, Science and the technologies it creates has long been the engine driving our nation's greatness and its prosperity. Today Science is not simply the province of academics and technicians in white lab coats. Instead, it has become inseparably woven into the very fabric of modern culture. Our civilization will rise or calamitously fall by the fruits and poisons that our science creates. Tonight, I ask all of you to step back with me and look at our nation's future through the unswerving vision of science.

First, in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona, we must ask how to disagree with each other without turning argument into a war and opponents into enemies. In this regard, Science has much to teach us. Wholly imperfect and fully human, the institution of Science has long called its participants to a higher code of behavior that places the investigation of the world before the triumphant ego. Of course, one can find examples of scientists behaving like spoiled children. But for the most part, across the last 400 years, the willingness to let the world speak for itself and a delight in the process of listening has allowed researchers who might bitterly disagree over points of theory to remain both colleagues and friends. The most important lesson from science's four centuries of progress might be its practitioner's willingness to never stop learning and their willingness to see making mistakes as a virtue. None of us in this great chamber has cornered the market on truth and given the severity of the issues we face, it's time for us all to become students again with all the humility and goodwill that entails.

Moving from what the culture of science can teach us to what the process of science is telling us, I must ask you, soberly, to face certain truths that have been evident for some time. To help us all put these truths in perspective, I ask you to imagine that you or a beloved member of your family were diagnosed with a serious illness. Imagine that you went to see ten doctors, nine of whom counseled in the strongest possible terms that a difficult operation was necessary to ensure survival. The last doctor advised no action at all and questioned the very diagnosis. In such a case what would be the most prudent course of action? Would you ignore the advice of the nine in favor of the one to avoid the operation?

This is very much the situation we find ourselves in now.

After decades of research, a consensus has been reached that our impact on the planetary environment cannot longer be treated as trivial. Climate change, the most extensive form of our impact upon the planet is, in some form, already upon us. Make no mistake; it is impossible at this moment for scientists to say exactly how extreme that change will be. But to use uncertainty to deny that change is coming, to deny that change is already on going, speaks to a kind of willful ignorance that is simply not part of the American personality.

From a purely research perspective, Climate Change as a reality was settled some time ago. It is now time to stop debating old science and start debating new policy. We do not have to do anything in response to what we know is happening or we can do a great deal. That is our choice. It is our response now that will determine our future and the future of Americans for many generations to come. But to deny we face a choice is to deny our responsibility to those future generations. From the elimination of slavery to facing down the fascist threat 60 years ago, we have never been a nation to turn our back from challenges. Our resilience and ingenuity have always been our, and the world's, salvation and it can be again.

We must also be willing to stare down the other great truth facing our collective moment. For decades we have known that the fossil fuels upon which every aspect of our culture depends were being depleted. From fertilizers to pesticides to medicines to building supplies to the fuels that make it all move; we have been addicted to a substance whose supply we know is limited. For decades we have failed to act on that knowledge. Very soon now we will begin feeling the effects of our inability to act. Very soon now, unless we marshal an effort worthy of the challenge, we will understand the inescapable links between civilization and the energy source on which it depends. There will be no replacing oil. Instead, we must very quickly build a culture structured from the ground up on something different, something we must imagine and forge in just a few decades. There will be no magic bullets in this task. If we cannot marshal a collective effort then we very well may face a collective collapse. That is how real and how close the danger we face has become.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we must accept that we face challenges no other generation in the entire history of our species has known. That grand evolutionary perspective is also something science has shown us to be true. We are the first citizens of a planetary culture with planetary stewardship. But it is not at all clear that we are up to the task. Our long experiment with science has, however, shown us our capacity to face facts and let them speak for themselves. In that history, we can take great pride and comfort. We can see and we can see clearly for ourselves. We have learned to speak the world's own dialect. If we are willing to be honest in what we have heard there is no reason, no reason at all, that our nation can not endure, thrive and lead the world into the next century.

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