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President Barack Obama discusses the Clean Power Plan at the White House on 3 August.

President Barack Obama discusses the Clean Power Plan at the White House on 3 August.

The White House

Obama’s Clean Power Plan is finally out. But scientists say the work’s just begun

In announcing his administration's signature climate change initiative at the White House yesterday, President Barack Obama made a point of calling out researchers in the East Room audience.

"Not everyone here is a scientist, but some of you are among the best scientists in the world," he said. "What you and your colleagues have been showing us for years now is that human activities are changing the climate in dangerous ways."

Obama said the new Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut carbon pollution from U.S. power plants by 32% below 2005 levels by 2030, now puts the United States in a position to lead the global policy response climate change. And scientists who support the plan, which was years in the making, celebrated its arrival.

But many say their work is far from over. Researchers still need to answer plenty of questions on how best to achieve a lower-carbon economy, they tell ScienceInsider. And they still need to figure out how to better communicate their research findings to a public sometimes skeptical of the need for action.

"I think there's always a disconnect between what is known to the scientists and what is understood by the public," says Sumita Khatri, a physician and co-director of the asthma center at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, who was among those standing behind Obama during the ceremony. For example, she says the predicted public health benefits of the Clean Power Plan—which is expected to cut deadly soot pollution by deemphasizing the burning of coal to produce electricity—are sometimes overlooked. "Any time there is more evidence for these associations,” she says, “it's the responsibility of the scientists to engage the public in very understandable terms in what that means in terms of the initiative to combat climate change."

One way to foster such communication, she believes, is for scientists to become more involved in nonprofits that are involved in advocacy. Such interactions would “add credibility, and guide what they are doing, so it is supported by science," says Khatri, who is on the national board of directors of the American Lung Association.

Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group based in Boston and Washington, D.C., believes scientists who back the Clean Power Plan will need to become even more strategic in how they communicate with policymakers—especially given the opposition the plan is expected to face in Congress and the courts.

"There is a very, very important role for scientists to play in reaching out to legislators from their districts, many of whom are skeptical on climate change," he says. "Scientists from the Rocky Mountains should be talking about these forest fires and the links to climate change. On the West Coast, it's the historic drought. On the East Coast, it's floods in Miami and Charleston. These local, measurable, observable impacts are very, very important … [and] one shouldn't assume our leaders in Washington know this. They say they aren't scientists."

The new plan also includes incentives for deploying energy sources that don’t rely on fossil fuels—highlighting the need for the United States to sustain a broad portfolio of renewable energy research, says Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. For example, he says, a major research push is still needed on solar energy, including better ways to store solar power generated during the day so it can be used later.  

He notes that wind energy has been expanding even without the spur of a national climate policy, growing faster than any other form of electricity generation in the United States. Wind turbines now provide more than 15% of the power in seven states. Solar, on the other hand, still lags in the single digits, even though research by Kammen's lab showed that solar could provide one-third of U.S. electricity by 2050. "With wind energy already a significant national player, the national ramp-up of solar is key," Kammen wrote in an email.

The plan also highlights the need for researchers to improve so-called life cycle assessments of the impact of natural gas-fired power plants on greenhouse gas emissions, Kammen says. Gas has been rapidly supplanting coal as the fuel of choice for producing electricity in the United States, and the new plan is expected to boost that trend. One oft-cited benefit of such switching is a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. But that is based on the assumption that gas pumping and transportation systems don't leak, Kammen says. "The key need here is careful monitoring of not only gas plants, but the pipelines, wells, etc.," he wrote in an email.

Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist who directs the climate science center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, says there are limits to the role of scientists as the United States moves to address global warming. "Science can tell us that climate is changing," she said in an email. "Science can tell us why climate is changing: for the first time in the history of this planet, it's us. Science can tell us what the outcome of our choices will be … But science can't tell us precisely how much to reduce and how to accomplish that task: That’s where policy comes in."