Ready and Organizing: Scientists, and Most Americans, Have Climate Change on Their Minds

, climate scientist | December 21, 2016, 11:21 am EDT
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I look around and I see two things that strike me: an astonishing number of poster tubes (you know, the type you sling over your shoulder) and an astonishing number of people. I am told we are 25,000+.

The crowd at the AGU Fall meeting. Photo: Astrid Caldas

The crowd at the AGU Fall meeting. At least one poster tube is visibile. Photo: Astrid Caldas

Last week I was at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco, by many accounts the largest scientific gathering in the world. The brightest minds in science come here to showcase their work, and the world invariably watches—I remember reading news after news about this meeting before I even attended, years back.

Topics vary from atmospheric sciences to cryosphere to education to global environmental change to planetary sciences (to name just a few). But here is another astonishing fact: there is a vast number of presentations on the subject of climate change. I dare say it is everywhere.

Climate change is on the minds of the foremost scientists in the world

No matter what those scientists’ specialty is, chances are their work is being affected by climate change, in one way or another.

Social scientists are deep into researching what leads people to see climate change as a fact, and what makes them act on it at various levels, or how one can best communicate the facts of it so people really get it.

Earth scientists are dealing with a variety of earth data that define air and oceans and land processes as we know them, and those in turn are being affected deeply by climate change.

Biologists are seeing firsthand drastic changes in the organisms, populations, and communities they study—animal and plant species changing their distribution and range and being afflicted by new pests and diseases; animal species dwindling in numbers or changing their appearance because their environment is not adequate to their ways of feeding, mating, and surviving anymore; species interactions thrown out of whack because the once synchronous processes are no more.

Health scientists are in a frantic search for cure and prevention of a series of seemingly new pathogens and old ones making their way across the planet where they never occurred before.

There was a strange, sobering mood at these meetings this year

On and on and on, I saw them, speaking to full rooms, carrying their poster tubes, talking with their peers in animated tones. When I perked my ears to try to listen in, the latter mostly refer to the current state of politics and the utter disrespect for science, particularly in the United States of America.

The energetic, vigorous, upbeat attitude of scientists divulging their latest finding, discussing their methods, mentoring young minds, and networking with their peers has a different type of dynamics this time around.

It’s like the urgency of the times leaves no room for dawdling, for wondering, for marveling at the beauty of science and the scientific method. “We are running out of time!” and “we must act now!” and “what more proof is needed?” are like war cries in the throats of many. Voices want to be heard, facts need to be conveyed (note, these are facts, not hypotheses), action must be taken.

A few notable quotes I heard that capture the focused sense of urgency of the community:

“Bringing back coal is like bringing back slavery: not gonna happen.”

“One needs to reduce the federal fiscal risk; this will go well independently of the administration, and climate change is a huge risk.”

“What needs to happen to get all of us scientists to come out and stand up for science? Well, whatever it is, it is already happening.”

But it is not just idle talk. There is action being taken, everywhere, and scientists are outspoken like they haven’t been in a long time. The urgency of the times demands it.

Scientists rally and demand that all #standupforscience. Photo: Jean Sideris

Scientists rally and demand that all #standupforscience. Photo: Jean Sideris

Scientists are ready and organizing for the fight ahead

We are ready for the fight. At the UCS booth, people would come by just to sign our open letter (signed by 22 Nobel laureates and more than 2,300 scientists around the globe) to the president-elect, asking him to keep science relevant in his administration.

Another open letter from a group of women scientists gained immense momentum, and another one from members of the US National Academy of Sciences, written in September 2016 and drawing attention to the risks of climate change, was also certainly seen by the president-elect. Many others are in circulation.

A rally took place on Tuesday, December 13. Hundreds of scientists gathered near the convention center vowing to stand up for science. Several scientists spoke to the urgent need to organize and defend science, and with good reason. President-elect Trump’s nominations are a testament to the science-denialist profile his administration is likely to exhibit, and have many scientists concerned.

Rumors about the downsizing or even shutdown of NASA’s climate research program (more on that and on the importance of NASA research here and here) and a request for names of federal employees at the Department of Energy involved in climate-related meeting by the transition team (later dismissed as “unauthorized”) have led to a movement aimed at preserving scientific data that many fear could be destroyed in the new administration.

These are unprecedented actions, but they are not representative of just a few opinions. In fact, regular, non-scientist Americans do think that climate change is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Global warming is also on the minds of most Americans

Just after the election, a nationally representative survey (1,226; including 1,061 registered voters) was conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and the results show that a majority of Americans, across party lines, support climate action. Some of the survey highlights include:

  • Seven in ten registered voters (69%) say the US should participate in the international agreement to limit climate change (the Paris Climate Agreement), compared with only 13% who say the U.S. should not.
  • Two-thirds of registered voters (66%) say the US should reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of what other countries do.
  • A majority of registered voters want President-elect Trump (62%) and Congress (63%) to do more to address global warming.
  • A majority of registered voters say corporations and industry should do more to address global warming (72% of all registered voters; 87% of Democrats, 66% of Independents, and 53% of Republicans).
  • Nearly eight out of ten registered voters (78%) support taxing global warming pollution (one type of carbon pricing), regulating it, or using both approaches, while only one in ten opposes these approaches.

Menwhile, 2016 is on track to be the warmest year on record

2016 is well on its way to be the warmest year ever. Image: NOAA

2016 is well on its way to be the warmest year ever. Image: NOAA

The urgency of speaking out and standing up for science is compounded by the fact that records indicate 2016 is well on its way to be the warmest year ever. Followed by 2015, followed by 2014, and 2010 and 2013—in fact, the past 4 years are among the hottest years on record and all but one (1998) of the ten hottest years have happened in this century.

We are seeing the impacts of global warming: sea level rise, droughts and related wildfires, extreme events, sea ice decline (here and here), terrible floods.

If we don’t act on all fronts, and quickly, time may run out to prevent significant damage. The ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement by over 100 countries is an essential piece of the emissions reduction plan necessary to avoid worsening impacts.

We can only hope that the president-elect does not pull out of the agreement, a stated goal of his campaign, and instead does what is right for his country and for the world—and is wanted by most Americans.

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  • Gregory Greenwood

    UCS ought to consider a giant march on Washington on Earth 22 April to demand climate action. All the policy talk in the world is not gonna convince the Trump administration of anything. Those of us who want the US gov’t to take action need to make ourselves heard. Anyone who participated in the the marches to protest the Vietnam war will remember that it was these sorts of visible political actions that started to turn the tide (that and the draft).

  • Mark J. Harris

    Maybe it’s time for civil disobedience by scientists. A white coat brigade! Go on a scientist-only general strike and volunteer that day to plant trees or blockade a coal plant or install solar panels.