Should scientists speak up for climate action?

How to balance professional objectivity and the existential threat of climate change.

 

This article was originally published by Undark and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

I was recently chatting with a friend who specializes in science education when we touched upon a conundrum: Researchers who study climate change grasp the dire need to cut planet-warming carbon emissions that come from burning fossil fuels, yet many of them shrink from voicing their views at public events or to the press. The stock-in-trade of scientists is their objectivity, my friend explained. The worry is that advocating for an agenda may diminish their credibility, hurt their careers, and make them sitting ducks for political attacks online. But what are their moral obligations here? What should they do?

Scientists and supporters rallied in Washington, D.C., in April 2017.

Curious, I did some digging and queried a few experts and, well, the issues here are complicated. You’ve got a decades-old controversy over whether scientists should be advocates, and you’ve got climate change, a diffuse, slow moving and highly politicized problem. To be sure, researchers should inform the public about what they’ve learned from their studies and suggest potential ways forward. But views differ on what, exactly, is the best way for them to make the case for action, particularly given the politics involved and what can seem like real reputational risks.

For one perspective, my friend pointed me to the work of philosopher and climate activist Kathleen Dean Moore, an emerita professor at Oregon State University. I looked up Moore’s poetic and poignant 2016 book, “Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change,” which lays out razor-edged arguments for why climate change is a matter of moral urgency. Given the existential nature of its hazards, letting climate change proceed unchecked is a betrayal of the children who inherit the planetary mess we’ve made. It’s a gross human-rights violation, because poorer nations will suffer the most. The list goes on.

“If you have all the facts” — that is, the scientific consensus on climate change — “and if you have this moral affirmation of our duty, then you know what you ought to do,” Moore told me when I called her. “You know that it’s necessary for the government, everybody to take action.” And climate scientists bear a particular moral responsibility because “they know, more than anybody else, the dangers that we face,” she said. Backed by the authority of their science, “they have powerful voices if they would choose to use them.”

Moore writes in “Great Tide” that we’re in an “all hands on deck” crisis, yet most scientists have been “down in the hold, muzzled by the vague but real fear that if they speak out, they will be punished for ‘advocacy,’ the cardinal sin of science.”

A protestor displays a sign at the March for Science in Washington, D.C., in April 2017.

At a meta-level, the philosopher’s call to action makes sense to me. As she says in her book, Bob Dylan’s lyrics got it straight: “What good am I if I know and don’t do / If I see and don’t say.”

Those lines reminded me of a different quotation that Gavin Schmidt, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and co-founder of the RealClimate blog, often cites in support of scientist advocacy. The quote, which first appeared in The New Yorker in 1986, comes from Nobel Laureate and climate chemistry researcher F. Sherwood Rowland: “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

In this sense, Schmidt told me, the real issue is not whether, but how to advocate for change in ways that are responsible — and that actually make a difference. There’s no bright line that divides science from advocacy.

Okay, so what’s a scientist supposed to do?

This is where Moore stakes out a more radical interpretation. In her ethical analysis, global warming is like a house on fire; we should throw all we’ve got at putting out the damn fire. Moore often cites a consensus report, signed by more than 500 scientists in 2013, warning that unless nations take immediate actions, the Earth’s life-support systems will most likely suffer irretrievable damage by the time today’s children reach middle age. That statement was important and courageous, and galvanized her own activism, she told me. But if climate change is a global emergency, just signing a letter isn’t enough. If the scientists really believed what they wrote, “they would be out on the street, demanding action,” Moore writes in “Great Tide.”

Donald Trump’s election spurred a debate about advocacy among many scientists, some of whom joined the March for Science in Washington, D.C., in April 2017.

With Congress and the fossil fuel industry sitting on their hands, the philosopher believes that researchers (and the rest of us) should take a page from the civil rights movement. They could, for instance, march on academic campuses, calling for their universities to divest from fossil fuel corporations, she said, or demonstrate against oil pipeline projects (and get arrested) like James Hansen, the former head of NASA Goddard, has. Yet scientist-activists such as Hansen are the exceptions. The failure of many climate researchers to match their warnings about global warming with their actions is “the great moral hazard” that they face, Moore told me.

In other words, it’s a failure of integrity. Ouch.

But when I talked with Schmidt, he disagreed that political protest, or any other particular kinds of action, are necessarily the best or the only ways to act with integrity. It isn’t certain which forms of advocacy will truly spur societal movement on climate change. “It’s totally unclear what it is that any individual should be doing to make this a better world in the future,” he told me, his voice rising in intensity. How much does marching in protests move the needle? Is it more effective for climate scientists to talk directly to government decision-makers? There’s a range of possible actions that people can try, Schmidt said, and scientists act with integrity when, realizing they can’t do everything, they “decide what to do based on opportunity, effectiveness, and difficulty.”

The problem, he added, is that climate change isn’t an acute disaster scenario with black-and-white answers. The reality is bedeviled with grays. Yes, humanity needs to shift to cleaner energy systems, but it’s not as easy as immediately shutting down all consumption of fossil fuels, he said. Switching systems will have costs, too, and it’s uncertain which policy approaches — such as cap-and-trade? a carbon tax? — will be most effective. And since climate researchers usually aren’t experts on climate policy strategies, he noted, they’re less likely to advocate for a particular solution. They don’t want to be seen as irresponsible in weighing in on something they don’t know enough about.

In the current political climate, scientists may also see participation in public policy debates as a high-risk move. Some government climate scientists have been muzzled from speaking at conferences under the Trump administration, after all. And Moore told me of one climate researcher from overseas, currently working in the U.S. on a visa, who nixed an invitation to speak at a rally in support of science, for fear of being targeted for deportation. Other scientists worry — not without reason — that they could lose their research funding if they joined a divestment campaign, Moore said.

In April 2017, marchers took to the streets to show their support for science.

Of course, it’s hard to know the extent to which such potential threats are real. It’s also far from clear whether advocacy by scientists undercuts their public credibility, as feared; recent studies suggest that isn’t automatically the case. But the upshot of the perceived risks is a silencing effect. Like anyone else, researchers want to protect their jobs to support their families.

Still, the winds may be shifting. Simon Donner, a climatologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, observes that a younger generation of climate researchers seems to be taking up the torch of advocacy, experimenting with social media, blogs, and other forms of public outreach. “We have people being really outspoken and not being shy about it,” he told me. “And Trump has helped make that happen, for sure.”

For climate researchers who wish to engage, but lack confidence in how to do so, Donner’s advice is to prepare well: First, figure out what you’re comfortable with — whether it’s speaking to community groups about research findings, supporting a divestment campaign, or writing op-eds in favor of, say, carbon tax legislation. Then, advocate responsibly by being clear when you’re reaching conclusions based more on personal values than on science, Donner said. Scientists should also consider who their audience is and read up on research about effective communication approaches. There are many books, guidelines and training programs to turn to.

For inspiration, would-be scientist-advocates might also look to Albert Einstein, who spoke out forcefully against the development of nuclear weapons. If the Nobel Prize-winning physicist hadn’t voiced his opinion, people might have thought less of him, Donner said — and the same goes for climate scientists now. “If you choose silence as an option, that can also reflect poorly on you.”

Ingfei Chen is a California-based writer whose stories have appeared in publications including Scientific American, The New York Times, and Spectrum. She is a former Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.