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?
For many scientists, there’s no bright line that divides advocacy from the public discussion of science.
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.”
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?”
“If you have all the facts, and if you have this moral affirmation of our duty, then you know what you ought to do.”
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. For many scientists, there’s no bright line that divides advocacy from the public discussion of science.
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.”
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.
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.
Climate change isn’t an acute disaster scenario with black-and-white answers. The reality is bedeviled with grays.
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.”
UPDATE: An earlier version of this column unintentionally associated the views of the scientist Gavin Schmidt with a more general observation about the perceived line between science and advocacy. The language has been modified to make clear the distinction.
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.
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