American climate science faces an age of unreason

How top scientists protect the scientific endeavor and keep the public informed in an adverse political climate

Over decades climate research has been massively politicized in the United States. In the years to come the attacks from past republican eras will all but fade against the dimension of the war on science that the winner of the electoral vote and his band of fossil fuel billionaires and ultra-right science assailants have already started. Scientists have realized that they will have to fight for the continuation of their work and think about how to communicate the results to those who will have to prepare for the impacts of climate change.

Battles to come

These issues also took up quite some space during the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) mid December in San Francisco, one of the biggest science meetings of the world. Over the course of four days, the 25,000 participants not only shared new findings in astronomy, atmospheric chemistry and geosciences but also their concerns about censorship, budget cuts and harassment, says Lauren Kurtz, executive director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF). The organization supports scientists in cases of defamation and legal attacks. Originally it was founded by researchers and activists to defend climatologist Michael E. Mann: his hockey stick graph of the global temperature development of the last 1000 years from a 1999 study bestowed an invitation to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) upon the scientist – but also a dozen investigations because of alleged deception as well as countless death threats. In the end he was exonerated in all cases, and the attacks died down with time.
But the CSLDF has more work than ever. Kurtz brought a Pocket Guide for Scientists to San Francisco, which, among other things, helps avoid making mistakes when getting sued. For acute cases – according to Kurtz this year two or three times as many as 2015 – the CSLDF offered on site lawyer appointments during the event. Many researchers wonder whether to switch to private companies or found their own to protect themselves and the research, Kurtz reports. In spite of everything, a majority seem to adhere to the British World War II maxim Keep Calm and Carry on, she says.

Politically, scientists are not alone either. In San Francisco, for example, they received both back-up and directives from the California governor. Following his resounding speech, Jerry Brown promised the audience the Californian Attorney General’s friendship in the event that ‚… anyone in Washington starts picking on researchers.‘ He also called everyone to the defense of truth. A few hundred scientists organized a demonstration right on site; earlier, 4.500 of them had already signed an open letter of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) to then president-elect Trump. In the weeks since many took to securing their data on non-government servers.

Leaving the madhouse of the deniers

‚We need scientists who focus on doing science,‘ said Katharine Hayhoe, climate and political scientist at Texas Tech University, on a panel at the AGU meeting. ‚And we need those who are willing to talk to people about it.‘ Public relations is not every researcher’s favorite thing to do, but there is a range of options, popular science books, lectures and articles in the scientific as well as daily press included. Some write in blogs, many in social networks. In a column in the science journal NATURE, Phil Williamson of the University of East Anglia, UK, asks whether it’s worth correcting articles that claim to be scientific but represent only a political ideology. He thinks it is as leaving lies prevail does not help the truth.
Targeted misinformation, however, not only affects public opinion, but also binds scientists‘ ressources and so keeps them from doing their actual work. That is why climate researcher Michael Mann and Washington Post cartoonist Tom Tole recommend to leave the madhouse of the deniers. Their satirical analysis of the strategies and motives of professional science assailants, published in October 2016 under the title The Madhouse Effect, advises against engaging with these people.
Together with his colleague Lee Kump, climate researcher and professor of Earth system science at Pennsylvania State University, Mann also wrote a exquisitely illustrated summary of the IPCC reports: Dire Predictions provides average readers with easy-to-access, solid information on climate change. Such a thing is helpful, says his coauthor. However, Kump thinks talking with the causal agents is even more important.

When talking problems focus on solutions

Fostering a relationship with the oil and gas industry is part of his job, explains Kump, as it is not only the largest employer of his graduate students, but also sponsors a large part of the student programs. As the head of the Geology Department, Kump is responsible for graduate placement as well as the acquisition of funding. ‚The negotiations are a balancing act,‘ he says, ‚as, of course, we are well-known for our climate research.‘ Although some of today’s executives in oil and gas companies received their degree from Penn State back in the day, lecturing them about climate change usually causes resentment. He thus follows the approach of his colleague Klaus Keller. The meteorologist and economist talks to the partners about their practical work and focuses on risk assessment and management, which play a pivotal part in it.
‚Suddenly, a lot of things become possible: the continuation of the funding as well as analyses of sea-level rise, costs and solutions,‘ he says. Also, one should keep in mind that most of the large oil companies, including ExxonMobil, BP and Shell, support both the Paris Climate Agreement and a carbon dioxide tax, Kump points out. One might be skeptical about the motives of these billion dollar companies. But they certainly want to be among the largest energy suppliers in the world by 2050 or 2100.
Katharine Hayhoe, head of Texas Tech University’s Climate Research Center, speaks to the oil industry too, even though she has also been legally harassed by its front groups. Hayhoe develops scenarios of local and regional climate evolution and advises planners who take those into account when designing, for example, infrastructures. Lectures in schools and community centers as well as in front of oil drilling engineers are part of the outreach, which on top of research and teaching, is her biggest field of work. The majority of Texans believe climate research has even less base in reality than astrology, she says. So, ‚I cannot not talk about climate change.‘

Starting in September, Hayhoe has been leading through the video series Global Weirding on Youtube. The short and easy-to-understand animation films shed a light on the weird phenomenon of global warming and many related issues. With curiosity and infectious enthusiasm she explains natural events, which today can hit everyone. She also provides inspiring solutions.
‚Global Weirding is supposed to get the conversation going,‘ she says. The videos would be watched by 100 times more people than she can reach when traveling. However, the number of hate e-mails and abusive comments has also multiplied. This doesn’t stop her, though. Apart from a very small if extremely vocal part of the population, people don’t have a problem with science, she believes. ‚Science impacts every area of our lives, it makes our cars drive and our planes fly.‘
In her view, however, information on facts does not suffice. ‚Most people have the facts in their heads. The problem is, they are not in it with their hearts. As yet, climate change has not been their problem. It was someone else’s job, like the government’s. Or it was something unstoppable they couldn’t do anything about.‘ If there is no hope, suppressing the issue is a reasonable response.
So what does Hayhoe recommend? ‚We need stories that concern real people close to home rather than on the other side of the world‘, she says. ‚Journalists and scientists need to show how climate change is having an effect on our own region. If I want to communicate the issue effectively, I need to find out what people worry about and address values that we both truly share.‘
‚And then I have to talk about the amazing solutions that already work. Nobody wants the government to tell them what to do‘, she says. But news about attractive solutions would inspire most people: ‚Solar roof tiles now cost the same as regular ones. The US Army is going to run its largest base on alternative energy because it saves a lot of tax money. That’s the kind of stories people love, no matter where they come from.‘ Tens of thousands of followers in social networks plus the science communication prize of the American Geophysical Union, which Hayhoe received in 2014, testify to the success of her recipe.

The apathy has vanished

Scientists March on Washington on Twitter

Spring 2017: Scientists March on Washington

The predictions for both the climate and the science are dire indeed, but both Katharine Hayhoe and Lee Kump see reason for optimism. ‚The election result has led to an incredible mobilization‘, Kump says. ‚The day after, our graduate students set up an organization called We are for Science. Since then, we have been discussing strategies for funding research and thinking about how to best communicate with people. The apathy of the previous decades has disappeared. It’s as if something of the spirit of the 1968s has returned. Back then, people on campus were constantly outraged because of some issue or other.‘ Hayhoe has also observed the change. ‚What we have seen in the weeks since the election is truly extraordinary: there is a tremendous rise in concern. Everyone is suddenly aware that this government will not act. Now, people are talking about climate change and they want to know what they can do. It’s the people that give me hope.‘ Governor Jerry Brown put it this way: ‚Some people need a heart attack to quit smoking. Maybe we just had our heart attack.‘

A slightly different German version of the article was published in the German weekly science magazine Spektrum – Die Woche 03/2017 on 19 January 2017.

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