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Rutgers professors express concerns over climate change awareness with incoming administration

David Robinson (above) is the state climatologist of New Jersey, and a Rutgers professor. He said the climate change debate essentially boils down to political alignments, economics and religion.  – Photo by Camilo Montoya-Galvez

In his remarks to the graduating Rutgers Class of 2016 last year, President Barack Obama criticized Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who presented a snowball on the Senate floor last year as evidence against the existence of climate change.

The Oklahoma senator is one of many elected officials that Obama has criticized for rejecting the scientific consensus that climate change is human-induced.

Despite the president's attempts to raise awareness on the issue during his two terms, some lawmakers, members of the upcoming presidential administration and a large segment of the American public remain skeptical about the source of climate change.

A study by the Pew Research Center showed that climate change perception tends to align with party affiliation, with 79 percent of Democrats believing that human activity is the culprit for climate change and only 15 percent of Republicans sharing that view.

David Robinson, a New Jersey state climatologist and a professor in the Department of Geography, said he believes much of the political bickering that encompasses his work stems from “political posturing,” economics and religion.

“There’s nothing wrong with questions," he said. "Everyone should question and ask for supportive evidence, be it theory, observations or efforts to model the climate system."

Robinson said individuals who do not believe in climate change refuse to acknowledge the physical changes that have taken place on Earth. 

On Jan. 18, NASA announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record, and the third straight year of increasing global temperature records.

Robinson said 2016 was the second warmest year in America and the third warmest in New Jersey as unequivocal testimony.

He said results of his research, which centers on monitoring the snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere, have also reinforced his belief. He has found that snow is melting at a faster rate in the spring and yielding warmer temperatures in different regions across the globe.

Despite the scientific nature of his work, Robinson said he has received hate mail questioning his intentions and even accusing him of being part of a ploy to expand the reach of the federal government.

“It’s upsetting because I got into this business because I just love studying the climate system and I found some certain niches within that I been able to enjoy and contribute to,” he said. “I didn’t get into this business with a liberal bent.”

Jennifer Francis, a professor in the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences, said in an email that the people who make these kinds of accusations on researchers are not familiar with the scientific process.

Francis, whose research is discovering disproportionate Arctic warming, said the best way to drift past the political wrangling around climate change is by having conversations with people, though some groups of people are difficult to converse with.

“The biggest challenge in talking to public groups is reaching the people who deny human-caused climate change, as they rarely show up for presentations on climate change by actual scientists," Francis said. "The Holy Grail for me is to be invited for an interview on Fox News."

Both Davidson and Francis said they were concerned about America’s commitment to tackling climate change as President-elect Donald J. Trump prepares to lead the nation with both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives controlled by the Republican Party.

The Republican Party previously characterized Obama’s climate change agenda as a “war on coal," according to its website.

“I am very concerned by the trajectory that our country is on with respect to dealing with climate change, particularly in the Trump era," Francis said. "A lot of good work that has been achieved through hard-fought battles is likely to be reversed by the Republican-controlled federal government."

Obama made climate change policy a signature feature in his time in office, regulating carbon emissions with the Clean Power Plan, which was placed on hold by the Supreme Court, ratifying the international Paris Climate Agreement and more recently banning offshore oil and gas drilling in parts of the Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

In 2012, Trump called climate change a fabrication by China and ran on a platform to protect the energy industry from environmental regulations.

Trump has nominated Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s attorney general and a climate change skeptic, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — which Trump has expressed scorn for and which Pruitt has sued 14 times.

“It worries me. This is a powerful individual in a very influential position,” Davidson said, referring to Trump. “They are misrepresenting or misunderstanding the science, the reality of this situation that is just smacking people right in the face.”

Although they expect significant changes in the federal government’s response to climate change, both professors said that local communities and states like California, whose governor has vowed to defy any federal inaction on climate change, will continue confronting what they believe to be an issue of great importance to America and the world.

Davidson said he will continue to focus on his work regardless of how big the political quarreling or stagnation on climate change is.

“I couldn’t imagine doing something that I didn’t think was worthwhile — something that moves things forward,” he said. “I wish I could live another 100 years just to see what’s going to happen.”

Camilo Montoya-Galvez is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in Spanish and journalism and media studies. He is a staff writer for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @camiloooom.

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