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We (the CSAG “seniors”) were having one of those informal lunch discussions (lounging around tables in the courtyard, surreptitiously eyeing each other’s food, talking a mixture of philosophy, fun, and frivolity). The topic morphed to the role of climate scientist’s activism in the public sphere.

The subsequent vigorous debate suggests it was a sensitive point (which I confess surprised me), and we got tangled in a morass of definitions. I had casually used the unfortunate term “activist” which was taken to mean placard-waving face-painted mobs raging in the streets. I should have used the term “advocate” or “advocacy”; that is, to actively mobilize for, or further an agenda.

That was awhile ago. More recently two separate research groups have published on the Antarctic ice sheet, and this has re-catalysed my thinking on the role of scientists in the public space.

(If you want the science of these publications you can get it here: and If you want the popular press version, try here:

The evidence of these papers suggests that we now face an unavoidable additional 1m or more of sea level rise on top of already projected increases. If so, then to a large degree, the mitigation train has left the station. For coastal regions society is now facing the inevitable necessity to implement substantial shoreline retreat. In the long term its goodbye (as we know them) to Manhattan, London’s financial district, much of Bangladesh, and closer to home significant portions of Cape Town’s Cape Flats. Add to this the inevitability of other changes from the global change commitment already in place from past and present emissions, and adaptation becomes an ever more pressing priority.

But if it’s a pressing priority, why are we not changing? How complicit am I in this delay?

Society does not like change. Society resists change. In fact, society is very good at harbouring denial-ism as a personal security blanket (or cynically, as a way to protect vested interests) despite the fact the corner of the blanket is on fire.

Of course there are and will continue to be some early adopters of change, and in the long run they will be the winners. For the rest, well, it seems it will take an “aaargh, that hurts” moment of realization.

So to the climate scientists out there, let me pose some questions:

  • Is a scientist a citizen (are we talking of “science and society”, or “science in society”)?
  • What is the scientist’s ethical responsibility in a world of relativistic values, where the scientist supposedly carries a heavy burden? (Knowledge equals power … power equals energy … energy equals matter … matter equals mass … knowledge is heavy [Terry Pratchett])
  • Are climate scientists currently too passive in society, should they be more engaged in advocacy?
  • The ivory tower of academia, is that simply a private place to call home; is our reluctance to be advocates a legacy of a past paradigm?

Set against these questions are some (I think) self-evident facts:

  • The reality that the preponderance of evidence clearly and undeniable indicates that climate change is a real and present danger, long lived and with multi-generational consequences.
  • The existing structure by which such scientific knowledge trickles through to society is slow, filled with miss-interpretation (both deliberate and innocent), and often tortuously twisted in support of different agendas (often rooted in greed or self-interest).
  • The players commonly dance to a tune of minority vested interests; for example, for the media its about what sells, politicians want to be elected, policy advisers are beholden to lobbyists, consultants want contracts, and many don’t want to hear about it simply because, well, they’re comfortable and why should they have to change (and is this any different when addressing the poverty issue?).
  • The landscape of actors is dominated by a complex language of jargon and ambiguity, loudly proclaimed by vocal minorities who tend toward hyperbole and polarization.

These and other factors lead to consequences that are persistent across generations, and are dominantly negative in impact because of the stresses placed on the quasi-equilibrium of society’s internal dynamics and inter-dependencies.

What then is the role of the scientist? Is it simply to generate knowledge, and then rely on less-informed communities to be a communication bridge for the complex and nuanced messages? Is it to become a placard-waving activist? Or is it somewhere in between.

I suggest that the spectrum of scientist’s responses need to populate the range of possibilities … each according to their context. However, I also suggest that currently the majority of climate scientists are hugely huddled at one extreme end of the options: the “we generate knowledge, and rely on less-informed communities to be a communication bridge”.

In part this is understandable; its human nature to shy away from confrontation, and we need to be strongly motivated to engage, which is perhaps part of the reason our lunch discussion became polarised.

But the hesitancy is also in part because we are too quick to infer that to be engaged in the public sphere means advocating for an action, versus advocating for action. There’s a subtle difference, but a critically important one. As a scientist I cannot be the determinant of what actions need to be implemented, other than in the most general sense (improve efficiency, build resilience, etc). The choice of action is for the relevant decision maker. But what is needed for the decision maker to make a decision on climate change?

The challenge then, for each and every scientist engaged in climate research, is to re-consider that they are members of society, not apart from society, and to ask the question “what responsibility do I have as an advocate for action”.

“If we don’t step up to the plate, we leave a vacuum [for] those with an ax to grind,”


5 Responses to “Personal complicity and responsibility”

  1. Phoebe Barnard

    We have long passed the point at which action and confrontation become the imperative. But confronting the situation is not the same, methinks, as confronting fellow humans. Our task is much more difficult, subtle, urgent than that. Alas! And all the more need for clear thinking…

  2. Neil

    Nothing new hear but another study showing that its not as simple as whether we should be advocates or not.
    In essence, people, good normal people, will persist in believing incorrect things, even when presented with the true facts.

    Psychology has a much larger influence that Knowledge….this is put much more clearly in the article below. Well worth the read.

  3. Mokoena France

    I do believe that everyone that understands climate issues should advocate for action wherever s/he goes but the question that always comes to my mind is “is this be the best/most effective way to influence required action?” and the answer to this question that comes is no.
    There is so much information within scientists which does not reach the people that should act on it, because there is communication gap between these two groups (scientists and the society). I see different groups in the society; politician, investors, educators/teachers, religious leaders, general public, etc and all these groups speak different languages. The message that they understand easily is one that is communicated in their own languages. I therefore have a feeling that if climate scientists fill that gap things might not end up as intended; we might confuse them more, due to our inability to speak their languages and, the amount and quality of new scientific knowledge produced may be reduce.
    My proposal is “division of labour” which I think could be more effective than if scientist go out and advocate for action; let scientists do what they do best (until that huge gray area/uncertainty in climate projections is minimized we still have a long way to go as climate scientists) and bring in people who will translate/package the work of climate scientists in ways that will be easily understood by various groups of the society. These people should be bilingual; they can understand climate science and master the language of a specific group. The “translators” should have frequent discussions with climate scientist to provide feedback and maybe input that would direct research towards finding relevant solutions to the challenges these groups face. Some training or in-depth discussion on the new findings will also be vital to make sure the translators understand them well. In short, I am of the view that being jack of all trades makes us masters of none, which is ineffective than my “division of labour”.

  4. Bruce Hewitson

    To be provocative: “When is the point reached where confrontation becomes the imperative?”

  5. Joseph Daron

    I thought this post might have created more of discussion by now but perhaps this reflects a very real tension felt by most scientists that it is actually quite awkward to discuss the role of scientists in advocacy, let alone engage in advocacy! Personally, while I recognise the distinction between advocating “for action” as opposed to advocating “for an action” I still struggle with what that means in practice. Given my knowledge of climate change and its causes, I certainly advocate for action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions but, contrary to what the popular press likes to report, so does any logically minded individual – it no longer takes a climate scientist to figure this one out. But determining the specific actions to take regarding mitigation and adaptation – i.e. advocating for an action – well now we enter dangerous territory for a “scientist”. Of course, as a human being, I have the freedom to decide what I think are the appropriate solutions but I only feel confident about what these might be in very specific contexts and locations. Moreover, just because I have experience in climate science doesn’t mean I can assume more knowledge than the next person about what specific solutions are best to implement in reality. So how can I move beyond a position of “we need to something” to “we need to do X, Y or Z”? I am not sure I have a good answer for this. When it comes to climate change mitigation, the aspect I really struggle with is advocating for specific actions when quite clearly my lifestyle, multiplied by 7.2 billion and then some, is an environmental catastrophe! Perhaps I will just continue to advocate for action for now, albeit in a low-key way to avoid confrontation.