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: http://tinyurl.com/mcp9gsz and http://tinyurl.com/or7nsba. If you want the popular press version, try here: http://tinyurl.com/k4pprgd)
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,”