Climate Scientists as AdvocatesLeave a Comment
By MICHAEL E. MANN NY TIMES OPINION JAN. 17, 2014
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — THE overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that human-caused climate change is happening. Yet a fringe minority of our populace clings to an irrational rejection of well-established science. This virulent strain of anti-science infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on TV, leading to the appearance of a debate where none should exist.
In fact, there is broad agreement among climate scientists not only that climate change is real (a survey and a review of the scientific literature published say about 97 percent agree), but that we must respond to the dangers of a warming planet. If one is looking for real differences among mainstream scientists, they can be found on two fronts: the precise implications of those higher temperatures, and which technologies and policies offer the best solution to reducing, on a global scale, the emission of greenhouse gases.
For example, should we go full-bore on nuclear power? Invest in and deploy renewable energy — wind, solar and geothermal — on a huge scale? Price carbon emissions through cap-and-trade legislation or by imposing a carbon tax? Until the public fully understands the danger of our present trajectory, those debates are likely to continue to founder.
This is where scientists come in. In my view, it is no longer acceptable for scientists to remain on the sidelines. I should know. I had no choice but to enter the fray. I was hounded by elected officials, threatened with violence and more — after a single study I co-wrote a decade and a half ago found that the Northern Hemisphere’s average warmth had no precedent in at least the past 1,000 years. Our “hockey stick” graph became a vivid centerpiece of the climate wars, and to this day, it continues to win me the enmity of those who have conflated a problem of science and society with partisan politics.
So what should scientists do? At one end of the spectrum, you have the distinguished former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen, who has turned to civil disobedience to underscore the dangers he sees. He was arrested in 2009 protesting mountaintop removal coal mining, then again in 2011 and 2013 in Washington protesting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Texas Gulf. He has warned that the pipeline, which awaits approval by the State Department, would open the floodgates to dirty tar sands oil from Canada, something he says would be “game over for the climate.”
Dr. Hansen recently published an article in the journal PLoS One with the economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, and other scientists, making a compelling case that emissions from fossil fuel burning must be reduced rapidly if we are to avert catastrophic climate change. They called for the immediate introduction of a price on carbon emissions, arguing that it is our moral obligation to not leave a degraded planet behind for our children and grandchildren.
This activist approach has concerned some scientists, even those who have been outspoken on climate change. One of them, Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, who has argued that “the only ethical path is to stop using the atmosphere as a waste dump for greenhouse gas pollution,” expressed concern about the “presentation of such a prescriptive and value-laden work” in a paper not labeled opinion.
Are Dr. Hansen and his colleagues going too far? Should we resist commenting on the implications of our science? There was a time when I would, without hesitation, have answered “yes” to this question. In 2003, when asked in a Senate hearing to comment on a matter of policy, I readily responded that “I am not a specialist in public policy” and it would not “be useful for me to testify on that.”
It is not an uncommon view among scientists that we potentially compromise our objectivity if we choose to wade into policy matters or the societal implications of our work. And it would be problematic if our views on policy somehow influenced the way we went about doing our science. But there is nothing inappropriate at all about drawing on our scientific knowledge to speak out about the very real implications of our research.
My colleague Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who died in 2010, used to say that being a scientist-advocate is not an oxymoron. Just because we are scientists does not mean that we should check our citizenship at the door of a public meeting, he would explain. The New Republic once called him a “scientific pugilist” for advocating a forceful approach to global warming. But fighting for scientific truth and an informed debate is nothing to apologize for.
If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.
This is hardly a radical position. Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger. The public is beginning to see the danger, too — Midwestern farmers struggling with drought, more damaging wildfires out West, and withering record summer heat across the country — while wondering about possible linkages between rapid Arctic warming and strange weather patterns, like the recent outbreak of Arctic air across much of the United States.
The urgency for action was underscored this past week by a draft United Nations report warning that another 15 years of failure to cut heat-trapping emissions would make the problem virtually impossible to solve with known technologies and thus impose enormous costs on future generations. It confirmed that the sooner we act, the less it will cost.
How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? How would I explain to the future children of my 8-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, but didn’t speak up in time?
Those are the stakes.
Michael E. Mann is the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University and the author of “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.”
Back in 2010, the great cryo-scientist Lonnie Thompson wrote a terrific paper explaining why more and more climate scientists were speaking out:
“Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.”
Contrast that to President Obama as quoted in the current New Yorker, “I think we are fortunate at the moment that we do not face a crisis of the scale and scope that Lincoln or F.D.R. faced.” In fact, World War II (and the Civil War) are good analogies for the scale and scope of the crisis we face (as I argued 5 years ago). Climatologists have their work cut out for them getting this message out. On Sunday leading climatologist Michael Mann had a must-read New York Times op-ed [see above] elaborating on the moral necessity of speaking up, “If You See Something, Say Something.” ….
Well, for an individual, attempts to avoid the severe health consequences of cigarette smoking by smoking less may turn out to be futile — and yet it is the smart thing to do. And it is the moral responsibility of their doctor to tell them so — particularly since we know that, overall, the population benefits from a large-scale reduction in smoking. And so it is with carbon pollution.
Scientists can change their minds, of course, but that typically happens on the basis of evidence. And the evidence for dangerous climate change has gotten stronger over time. Indeed, recent research underscores the fact that the uncertainties still remaining in climate science are primarily about whether things will be even worse than most of the models have been projecting — see “Nature Bombshell: Observations Point To 10°F Warming by 2100.” As the lead author, Prof Steven Sherwood, said of his findings this month:
“Climate sceptics like to criticize climate models for getting things wrong, and we are the first to admit they are not perfect, but what we are finding is that the mistakes are being made by those models which predict less warming, not those that predict more.”….
Kirsten Luce for The New York Times New York City’s slogan for watchfulness against potential terrorists was appropriated by a tattoo artist in 2007.
Updated, 4:54 p.m. | “If You See Something, Say Something,” is the headline on a Sunday Op-Ed article by Michael E. Mann, the Penn State climate scientist who, after years of attacks from groups fighting restrictions on greenhouse gases, has become a prominent climate and political campaigner, as well. The piece appropriately defends the right of scientists to be citizens, fighting disinformation and pressing for action — a theme explored here starting with a 2008 contribution from Richard Somerville, a longtime climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
….There’s a troubling section, however, in which Mann creates a flawed dichotomy, hailing a paper by James Hansen and Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University (and others) pressing for deep carbon cuts and criticizing a peer,* Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, for complaining that the paper failed the Stephen Schneider / Gavin Schmidt test for distinguishing between the “is” of science and the “ought” determined by individual feelings about the state of the world and how to shape it…
…..Climate scientists, like all of us, come in all shapes and sizes and demeanors. I agree with Mann that it’s unwise for scientists to avoid the public debate over drivers of climate risk and options for reducing it. But I agree with Caldeira (and Gavin Schmidt and the departed Steve Schneider) that it’s counterproductive to blur lines between observations based on science and values-based views on solutions. Here’s Caldeira’s note:
“The issue of going beyond expertise is an important one. There is a disease wherein one develops expertise in one area and then feels free to pontificate on other areas about which one knows nothing. This is an affliction of many senior scientists, common even among Nobel Prize winners, and an affliction to which I have not been immune. If someone is speaking with great confidence while uttering pure hogwash, this does tend to reduce confidence in the utterances of the scientist. So, there is a cost to science and to our personal credibility when scientists make poorly supported assertions in areas outside of their expertise. In any case, scientists should be clear when they are making an assertion that is an empirical fact and when they are simply expressing their values and political opinions. Human beings do have a responsibility to speak out on issues that we feel strongly about.
One way to thread the needle is for climate scientists to speak out loudly and in detail about the areas we know something about — climate change and its consequences — but then speak with a greater degree of generality when coming to prescriptions about what exactly we should do. In other words, it is one thing to say (as a human being who happens to be a scientist) that we need to stop using the sky as a waste dump for our greenhouse gas pollution. It is another thing entirely to wegh in on specific policy instruments (taxes versus cap-and-trade versus regulations), specific energy technologies, and so on. It is fine for climate scientists to say (as human beings) that we need policies to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, that to do this we will need energy technologies with near-zero emissions, etc, and that we need to do all of this very soon.
It disturbs me when anyone, including climate scientists, (1) fails to distinguish between matters of empirical fact and matters of values and political opinion, and (2) speaks with an air of authority on topics about which they are largely ignorant.I do not claim to be entirely innocent of either of these transgressions. Although I work to try to keep myself on the straight and narrow, I do sometimes succumb to temptation.”
Postscript, 5:00 p.m. *| At the asterisk above, my characterization of Mann’s positions, as Mann and others have said on Twitter, was indeed too caricatured — although I maintain that his piece could easily be interpreted as very sympathetic to one approach and critical of the other. Ken Caldeira offered this note in the comment thread:
Michael Mann and I largely agree on what needs to be done, and our primary differences relate to what we do in the role of ‘informed citizen’ and what we do in the role of ‘scientist’. I was thankful that he quoted me, airing alternate views in his Op-Ed piece. Michael Mann may or may not be critical of my viewpoint, but I see no evidence that he is critical of me as a person. Some of my best friends are people I strongly disagree with. A more difficult question is what a scientist should do when we feel strongly about something but have no special relevant expertise. For example, if I feel strongly that Obama should pardon Edward Snowden, should I make public statements on this matter? Would I be using my standing as a climate scientist to communicate about civil liberties and national security issues about which I am not expert? Is this bad? Is keeping quiet about injustice that I perceive a greater evil? In any case, it seems important for scientists to make clear that our political statements are in our roles as ordinary people, not in our role as climate scientists…..