Source: BBC TV: Newsnight
Date: 20/01/2009
EventBBC Newsnight: "Restoring science to its rightful place"

  • Barack Obama: President of the United States
  • Susan Watts: BBC Newsnight Science Editor

Barack ObamaWe'll restore science to its rightful place. [Splice.] Roll back the spectre of a warming planet. [Splice.] We will harness the Sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.

Susan WattsPresident Obama couldn't have been clearer today, and for most scientists, his vote of confidence would have come not a moment too soon. 

In the eight years of the Bush presidency, the world saw the Arctic ice cap shrink to a record summer low, the relentless rise of greenhouse gas emissions and warnings from scientists shift from urgent to panicky.

President Bush came to power at the start of a new decade, a new century and what many thought would be a new era for science. The news that scientists had pieced together an early draft of the Human Genome had given a palpable lift to the end of the Clinton presidency.

Science was riding high, but Bush was less attentive. Religion, or at least the religious vote, informed Bush policy. His very public distaste for stem cell research mattered because it raised public suspicion of science. Creationism has grown stronger, to the point that more Americans now believe in the Biblical story of creation than evolution.

Scientists have got used to attempts to silence them, but now they're speaking out again. Unlike economic recession and wars, which pass, climate change does not, and there are deadlines if we want to avoid a point of no return. In fact, scientists calculate that Obama has four years in which to save the world. 

But, unlike Bush, Obama does listen to scientists. He's already appointed several to leading advisory positions, and although he has to deal with internal squabbles about whether cap-and-trade or a carbon tax is the best way to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, at least the Obama team does agree on the goal. 

So Obama has a unique opportunity to fix the recession and fix climate change at the same time. He just has to have the nerve to follow through. And this year, of all years, leadership matters, because the world hopes to thrash out a global deal to cut emissions. So if he does stick to his promises on renewables, energy efficiency, carbon capture and storage and hybrid vehicles, he'll help loosen the grip that fossil fuels hold on all our lives.