s have a moral obligation to take action on climate change'(Gu ardian,15. 8.13)
Calling on all scientists to refrain from public advocacy and leadership is wrong. We are in a global crisis, and the scientific fraternity has an ethical obligation to act
Dan CassThursday 15 August 2013
Al Gore’s influential film about climate science was not called A Scientifically-Modelled Truth, or The Statistically Fairly Likely Truth, even though these would have been accurate titles. It was An Inconvenient Truth, because the key factor in the climate debate is not the truthfulness of the science, but the futile political war waged against that scientific truth. That war is still being waged by sections of the media, as well as think tanks and campaigns funded by the polluters.
It was surprising, then, to read respected climate scientist Tamsin Edwards recently bemoaning that it is environmentalists who undermine her work, because we put her “under pressure to be a political advocate”.
Those of us who accept climate science empathise with scientists doing the hard work, and do not want to be putting them under pressure. It is the polluters and denialists who are putting researchers under pressure, and potentially doing far far worse.
Some of the virulent anti-environmentalists in the world are from my country, Australia. For example, Alby Schultz, a retiring member of parliament, says that the world is being dragged into a dark age by the “perverted science of global warming”, which he equates with Nazi ideology. Schultz also thinks Australians should be “rioting in the streets” against renewables.
So how should climate scientists respond to the likes of Schultz and his slurs? They could choose to debate him and all other critics – but this might make the problem worse, because it legitimates them.
As Bill Maher put it with comic exaggeration, “On this side of the debate: every scientist in the world. On the other: Mr Potato-Head”.
There is no debate here; it’s just scientists and non-scientists, and since the topic is science, the non-scientists don’t get a vote.
The majority of climate scientists are probably right to follow their current strategy, which is keep calm and carry on. They are expanding our knowledge about the climate, doing what they are best at and which the rest of us are unable to do.
However we are in a global crisis, and I believe that the scientific fraternity has an ethical obligation to take action. We need some scientists to show social leadership, not just scientific leadership. Edwards is being too strident, calling on all scientists to refrain from public advocacy and leadership. I think that is unreasonable to expect and never likely to happen.
There is a great precedent for engaged scientists participating in a social problem. After the second world war, when the world was at risk of a new, nuclear war between west and east, physicists showed leadership.
In 1955, Albert Einstein signed a letter calling on the world to renounce nuclear weapons. The Russell-Einstein manifesto was endorsed by the smartest scientists of the generation, including several Nobel Prize winners: Frédéric Joliot-Curie (1935, chemistry), Percy Williams Bridgman (1946, physics), Linus Pauling (1954, chemistry), Cecil Frank Powell (1950, physics), Hideki Yukawa (1949, physics), H J Muller (1946, physiology or medicine).
As a result of the manifesto, the scientists formed Pugwash, an organisation of scientists devoted to a political project: preventing nuclear war. Joseph Rotblat was a founder of the organisation and when the New York Times invited him to write on the 50th anniversary of the manifesto, he said: “We took action then because we felt that the world situation was entering a dangerous phase, in which extraordinary efforts were required to prevent a catastrophe.”
Rotblat and Pugwash shared the Nobel Prize for peace, and he is a hero of mine for showing that scientists can be passionate moral leaders and still retain their integrity. The work done by scientists through Pugwash helped make the world a safer place. Their work contributed to the key international agreements on weapons of mass destruction, including the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, and the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972.
The flipside of the problem of climate science is not just avoiding dangerous global warming, it is the benefits of clean energy. Scientists and technologists are paving the way for an age of safe energy. The clean energy revolution brings together science, design, social enterprise and the aspirations of the estimated 1.4bn or 1.6bn people who could be lifted out of energy poverty by solar power.
I believe the doomy prognoses of climate science, but remain optimistic that if we can turn around the climate crisis, we will generate great opportunities for making the world a better place.