‘Scientists must not remain on the sidelines’

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“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?”

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“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?”


by Joe Romm
Climate Progress, January 21, 2014

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 elaborating on the moral necessity of speaking up, “If You See Something, Say Something.” He notes:

“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.”

You can find a longer review of recent science in last week’s outstanding Senate testimony by Prof. Andrew Dessler, a Texas A&M climatologist. Dessler explains that the science “has led me to personally conclude that climate change is a clear and present danger.”

And it is a preventable danger — where we can with high confidence avoid the worst impacts for our children and grandchildren at low cost. So, as Mann argues, silence is no longer tenable:

“In my view, it is no longer acceptable for scientists to remain on the sidelines….

“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….”

And the public is beginning to see the danger because climatologists, like Mann and Dessler and Thompson and James Hansen and many others, are speaking out.

Of course a shrinking minority of climate scientists still feel it is their job to try to remove the batteries from the nation’s blaring smoke detectors. And so the Senate’s climate deniers get to hear from a favorite witness, Prof. Judith Curry, who, as Peter Sinclair noted in an excellent debunking, brings to mind “The practice of marching out credentialed spokespeople to front for a destructive, rapacious industry … perfected by the Tobacco industry in past decades.”

Just six years ago, Curry took on confusionist Bjorn Lomborg in a Washington Post op-ed, criticizing him for downplaying the risks of inaction. She concluded, “I have yet to see any option that is worse than ignoring the risk of global warming and doing nothing.”

Now Curry has herself become a Bjorn-again confusionist, actually arguing against her own research (!) on Antarctica to make her case that there is too much uncertainty to act. Now she concludes, “attempts to modify the climate through reducing CO2 emissions may turn out to be futile.”

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.”

Curry used to understand that uncertainty isn’t a justification for inaction — quite the reverse. Michael Mann and the overwhelming majority of climate scientists do understand that. I’ll end with Mann:

“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.”