50 Years of Science In Action

March 4, 2019 | 1:16 pm
Ken Kimmell
Former President

Today is a very special day–the 50th anniversary of the Union of Concerned Scientists.  As a proud leader of this great organization for five of these fifty years, I would like to share my reflections, which are excerpts from a 50th anniversary speech I gave a few weeks ago.

How it all began

Fifty years ago today–March 4, 1969–this organization was founded.  This day marked an unprecedented political awakening in the scientific community.

Richard Nixon had recently been sworn in as president. Military service was compulsory in the United States and nearly 500,000 American soldiers were deployed in Vietnam. The arms race was in full swing.  The US government used hideous weapons like napalm bombs on innocent people. At the same time, here in the US, rivers were literally catching on fire, and air quality in many cities was so toxic that it was dangerous to exercise outside.

The founders of UCS—Henry Kendall, Kurt Gottfried, and others, saw clearly what others missed– our precious scientific assets were devoted to military dominance and weapons of destruction, instead of addressing the world’s most pressing problems. And the scientific community was too quiet, constrained by an understandable, but ultimately misguided idea that scientists would hurt their enterprise by engaging in advocacy.

Kendall and Gottfried founded UCS to change all that.  Their simple and compelling idea—bring the power of science to make our world safer and healthier and mobilize the scientific community behind that cause.

What has UCS accomplished?

Now, as we look back, what can we say that this noble experiment has brought us?

A long and proud history of achievements, many of which are highlighted in this timeline.  While there are far too many victories to mention them all here, several themes emerge:

UCS has a proud history of being ahead of the curve

In January 1979, UCS called for the Three Mile Island nuclear plant to be shut down; our experts concluded that it was unsafe.  It was a remarkably prescient warning.  Just two months later, that plant partially melted down, gravely threatening thousands.

In 1992, UCS issued “A Warning to Humanity” highlighting the danger of climate change, long before public fully appreciated the threat it posed to the planet.  We followed this general warning up with regional climate impact reports that identified in concrete terms the future we faced–again long before the dangers manifested themselves in the extreme weather events we see today.

Our report ten years ago highlighting ExxonMobil’s campaign of deception about climate science helped start a whole ball rolling in exposing the deceptive practices of fossil fuel companies, leading to investigations, lawsuits, and other efforts now underway to hold these companies accountable for their enormous contribution to climate change.

Our work is often indispensable

UCS has a unique history of weighing in the public interest, even when others were quiet, in fact, especially when others were quiet.  We have often punctured the conventional wisdom and brought the facts to light so decisions were not made in darkness.

For example, we led, and still lead today, on revealing the vulnerabilities of missile defense systems. It was UCS who called out that this emperor had no clothes, and showed why that was and how easily these systems could be defeated with simple countermeasures.

Many years later, UCS exposed that the George W. Bush administration was threatening scientific integrity by suppressing, distorting and maligning the work of government scientists.

Or showed the dangers to human health posed by the overuse of antibiotics in animal feed when others were assuring us that everything was ok.

UCS has devised solutions that seem impossible to many at first—impossible, that is, until they come to be inevitable

In the 1980s and 1990s, UCS focused on the promise of renewable energy  and pioneered the use of state Renewable Energy Standards to drive them.  Look what has happened!  Twenty nine states now have these standards and wind and solar are leading every other energy source in new capacity.

We focused on doubling the fuel economy of cars, and we got that (though it is under attack right now).

We focused on protecting the work of government scientists, and won unanimous passage of a whistleblower protection law.

And now, we are proving that you can run a modern electrical grid, primarily on renewables, and states such as California relied on our work when committing to 100% clean energy by 2045.

Looking ahead

But an anniversary of this kind is not just about looking backwards.  The focus must be on the future.  And we must be honest with ourselves–our work has never been more urgent or important and the challenges of securing progress have never been more daunting.

Let’s start with climate change.   We are learning a bitter truth the hard way–the most precious commodity of all is—time.  We are running out of it.

Despite the rather miraculous advent of new technologies, and the almost daily lessons in the dangers of climate change we are learning in the form of extreme weather events, we are not moving nearly fast enough.

On nuclear weapons, while we made significant progress cutting the US and Russian arsenals, the nuclear threat persists, and in some ways, it is harder to address now.  Many people, particularly young people whose energy and passion we need, are not even aware of the threat.  And many who understand the threat think that there is nothing they can do about it.

On food, the challenge of sustainably feeding a burgeoning population has never been more daunting. 1.2 billion people are expected to be added to the planet in the next ten years, from 7.3 to 8.5.  1.2 billion people in ten years!   For many decades agricultural productively kept up or even exceeded population growth.  But, today, there are ominous signs that this is changing, as climate change wreaks havoc with growing cycles, pollinators decline, topsoil is depleted, and supplies of usable water decline.

And last but certainly not least, here in the US, we find ourselves in a place where top officials in Washington talk openly about alternative facts, and the institutions we relied on to separate truth from falsity are no longer respected by many people.  When facts mean different things to different people, depending upon which tribe they identify with, we face a mortal threat to democracy itself.

Why do I say this? Let’s remember that the roots of democracy are in the enlightenment, that period in which we climbed out of the dark ages through scientific curiosity and empiricism.  From this came the radical insight—that facts were demonstrable and knowable to all whose minds were open to the scientific method, and therefore truth was not the special province of one tribe, or one church, or one king.

That radical notion gave birth to democracy because, when knowledge resides in all of us, all of us have the right–in fact–the duty to participate in decision making.  That means the Dear Leader, or Big Brother of 1984—or yes, President Trump—don’t get to define the truth.

And so, we must understand that the current attacks on science, the way it is maligned and suppressed and misused on behalf of those with an agenda to benefit special interests, is an attack on our democracy itself.

So, as I see it, we have four tasks ahead:

  • Bending the curve on climate change before it’s too late
  • Reducing the nuclear threat
  • Sustainably feeding our population
  • maintain and enhancing the rightful place of science in a democracy.

And a fifth overlying obligation—to make sure that this work is done in a way that includes the many and benefits the many. Now, these are weighty challenges. But in this 50th year, our Union of Concerned Scientists is the best equipped it has ever been to overcome them. Our staff and our resources have grown significantly, thanks to the thousands who support our work. We have forged new partnerships, particularly with disadvantaged communities; equity, diversity, and inclusion is woven into our work in ways that it has never been before. We have changed the way we communicate, using the best new modern tools, knowing that the way you capture people’s attention and impel them to act is very different than it was 50 years ago, or even ten years ago.  Here is the modern face of UCS in this video. We have invested in outreach and now have a science network with over 25,000 members. And we have broadened our own thinking, knowing that these problems are so big that they can’t be solved only with the solutions that are our personal favorites.

So, on this 50th anniversary, we are awed by the foresight and prescience of our founders. We are profoundly thankful for the passion and loyalty from all of our supporters who have walked with us for 50 years!

And we march forward, with what Dr. Martin Luther King called upon all of us to have–tough minds, and tender hearts. And if we stick together, and never give up, there will be a 100th anniversary of UCS. And at that anniversary, my successor will look back, and thank us for:

  • Getting the world to net zero emissions by mid century
  • Eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons
  • Finding the way to sustainably feeding the world’s population
  • And strengthening the bonds between science and democracy, so that each flourish together and become so strongly linked that they cannot be torn asunder.