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The Head of the U.S.'s Earth Sciences Agency Gives Weird Answers to Questions About Climate Change

Asked when scientists would know enough about climate change for people to take action, he compared time to a rubber band.
rubber band ball

Asked when scientists would know enough to take action on climate change, USGS director Jim Reilly said on Thursday that time is "basically numbers on a rubber band."

Add the head of the United States Geological Survey to the list of Trump administration officials who don't seem to have publicly, fully accepted the results of the government's own latest climate change report.

Speaking at a large session at an Earth sciences meeting on Thursday, USGS director Jim Reilly talked repeatedly about the uncertainties in climate science. The USGS's mission is to conduct studies to better understand the Earth. It was one of 13 federal agencies that worked on a legally mandated report, published a couple of weeks ago, that updates the president and Congress on the effects of climate change on Americans. Yet Reilly never stated the simple conclusions that the national climate assessment's authors have been emphasizing publicly: that climate change is real, human-caused, and affecting human health and property now.

Reilly even made a bizarre comment about the nature of time. When asked when scientists would know enough about climate change that people could start taking action, he said: "Interpretation of the 'when' is really the problem, and the 'when' really is the problem in: What's that spectrum of time for you? Time, in this regard, is probably the same as what was best described in how you measure depth in a seismic section. That is, it's basically numbers on a rubber band, and you're doing one of these things, trying to figure out where's the best fit." (Reilly's comment about "doing one of these things" suggests he was likely making a gesture, but I didn't see it because I had my head down, taking notes.)

Climate science does, of course, have uncertainties. Scientists still need to refine their predictions of the exact temperatures and precipitation that different regions will experience, depending on the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Still, climate scientists generally agree that the world needs to act immediately, to prepare for climate change and to reduce carbon emissions, so that the planet won't continue to warm too much in the future. The Fourth National Climate Assessment says: "Future risks from climate change depend primarily on decisions made today." Communities, governments, and businesses are already taking action, but more is needed, the report says.

Historically, industries opposed to emissions restrictions have over-emphasized the uncertainty in climate science as a strategy for delaying regulation.

Reilly never clearly repudiated the report, the way some Trump administration officials have. For example, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was "not based on facts." President Donald Trump himself said he didn't believe it. Instead, Reilly said the science "is never settled" and kept bringing up questions he had about moving forward in climate science. He also said he didn't think Sanders' comment was "all that inflammatory."

After Reilly's speech, Christine McEntee, the executive director of the American Geophysical Union, said she wished the U.S. government would accept the Fourth National Climate Assessment. "The government has access to the best scientific expertise available on climate," she says. "We urge this administration to use that expertise to accept the findings of the scientific community and work with them, to have the best knowledge for this serious societal issue of climate change." The American Geophysical Union, a professional group for Earth and space scientists, had invited Reilly to speak; the Thursday session was held at the group's annual conference.