02 March 2014

Scientists Displaying a Different Kind of Denial — A Different Kettle of Fish

A Different Kettle of Fish by DeviantArt.com
My husband and I have noticed that ocean and marine scientists seem to either understand better or care more deeply (pardon the pun) about the climate change crisis than scientists in many other fields. I figure it's because ocean and marine science is about life, or always comes back 'round to life (unlike pure chemistry and physics, for example, or geology and atmospheric science). There's still lots of scientific modelling in this field, but the modelling seems to be about life (often in some form of "seafood").

This is why the new kind of denial of the climate change emergency that I witnessed recently is so disheartening. As a guest at the conference my husband attended this past week, I was able to sit in on a couple of sessions. During the first, a bioscientist at a marine laboratory explained the impacts that ocean acidification is having (along with a whole host of other depredations, including atomic testing!) on coral reefs. He walked us through the graph showing the different scenarios that he and his colleagues had run. And then he stepped in it. 

Perhaps you'd like to read the background to this first. In a world where scientists keep abdicating from telling the full truth about the urgency of this spectacularly serious problem because, in their words, they don't want to give policymakers an excuse to do nothing about climate change, they have given policymakers no reason to do anything! Not only that, but the notion that scientists don't want to "be political" went out the window the moment they made a decision about which and how much science to share with policymakers.

This fellow told his huge audience that he insisted to his research / modelling team that they run a fifth — and totally unrealistic — scenario through the model, a good news scenario where we all stop emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow and everything gets pretty much back to normal. He thought this was necessary so that policymakers wouldn't lose hope.

Dude! You've once again given policymakers a reason to do nothing! Policymakers don't deserve hope, Mr. Scientist. They haven't earned it. They haven't taken action yet. But you scientists haven't given them reason to take action, so who's to blame?

You say the scientist's job is to provide "the best available science" (I would add "within the context of the precautionary principle"), and yet you provided them a way out. You gave them a big, fat "See? Things will be just fine again!" With one little line on your graph that goes up when it should have gone down.

But that wasn't the worst of it. I stayed for the next plenary session, which was entitled Why Aren't They Listening? Ironically over half the audience walked out before this one even began (hence the name of the session could have been Why Aren't Half of Us Listening?). (Granted, it was verging on the lunch hour, and scientists get hungry, too.)

The panelists proffered some good suggestions:

  • Make this (climate change) issue an issue that governments already care about (jobs, economy, health).
  • Offer to help politicians and policymakers make sense of the climate science.
  • Say "As a scientist, this is what I see. As a concerned citizen/parent, this is what I feel."
  • Create a human connection with the people you're communicating the climate science to.
  • The information is out there. Appeal more to people's emotions and values. 
  • In the United States (I can't imagine that this is true in very many other places), the sector with the highest credibility is the military. Remind people that militaries around the world, but especially in the US, see climate change as a security issue.
  • Do all this, but keep working on your tenure and promotion first and foremost.

No, wait. What? Work on tenure and promotion? As though there's a normal future for these young scientists? WTF? Is this panel not discussing climate change?

There it is. They slipped it in, but there it is. Their denial of the climate change emergency. Although they're ocean scientists and they can see what's happening (especially with ocean acidification), they keep living, working, and giving advice to young scientists as though nothing has changed.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?