For decades, scientists have warned of the dangers of human-caused climate change through what they do best — science. But are papers and global summits enough for those concerned that climate change is an existential threat?
More than 1,500 scientists recently signed a declaration in support of Extinction Rebellion, the climate activist group that uses nonviolent civil disobedience to encourage government action on reducing carbon emissions. Notable XR protests have included gluing themselves to the gates of London’s Buckingham Palace and interrupting a summit at the Colorado Governor’s Mansion.
The scientists’ declaration reads, “The scientific community has already tried all conventional methods to draw attention to the crisis. We believe that continued governmental inaction over the climate and ecological crisis now justifies peaceful and nonviolent protest and direct action, even if this goes beyond the bounds of the current law.”
There’s community disagreement over researchers supporting or participating in displays of activism. Colorado Matters spoke with Twila Moon, a climate scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, and Maria Caffrey, who was a partner with the National Park Service, about those differences.
Caffrey was recently catapulted onto the national stage after she filed a whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration. She alleges she lost her job with the park service because she refused to eliminate mentions of human-caused climate change from her research.
Moon chose not to sign the letter while Caffery did sign on in support of the actions of Extinction Rebellion.
Caffrey said she’s been working on climate change research for a long time, including work with the federal government, and she’s frustrated by her experience.
“I’ve been on the front line of seeing how they interpret that science and what actions they want to take with that,” she said. “We’ve been telling the government about climate change for decades and they have done nothing about it.”
“If there’s a call for people to take a nonviolent route to stand up and speak out about this, then I’m all for that. We need more action, we can’t wait any longer,” Caffrey said…
One of Caffrey’s big concerns is how scientists aren’t encouraged to reach out to the general public about their work. She said the community talks among themselves, and published papers get shared with colleagues. She argues the issue is that scientists are paid to do the work and teach.
“That takes up 60 to 70 hours of your week. We’re not getting paid to do outreach to the public. It would be really wonderful if our universities could start issuing contracts that would include a public component.”
Moon agrees, and said, “we are at a point where we are not appropriately recognizing the importance and rewarding the activity of bringing science outside the scientific sphere.”
Moon said that she makes an effort to speak to a wide range of audiences, and she “brings them the science.”
“Because right now, the science, the physical changes happening in our earth system are alarming. There’s no need to make up a story beyond today’s science to bring a real shock to people about what it is our human choice is about our future path.”
Caffrey said she signs these letters and declarations, like the one in support of Extinction Rebellion, to try and reach lawmakers, to show them that “people are outraged, that the people want action.”
Moon hopes the letters she signs reach those who are only mildly concerned about climate change…
Moon said that the “politicization of climate science” makes her feel “bullied and pushed around.”
“I’ve written proposals in which I’ve avoided using the phrase climate change because I’m well aware that Congress could say, ‘Hey, we want to see these proposals.’”
Instead, Moon said she uses phrases like “changes in temperature,” “increasing temperature” and “risks.”
“It feels really inappropriate to have to consider that,” Moon said. “Feeling this pressure to fit into a political understanding of science certainly I think has driven more scientists to paying attention to the political process and considering how it is that they maybe have to speak up about their science.”
In an age of online harassment, Caffrey understands why a scientist would choose not to be more public about their research.
“I’ve been called an entitled millennial, I’ve had comments made about my looks,” she said. “As a woman in science, you get a lot of those. I’ve had letters sent to my home… sometimes it feels like you’re putting not only yourself but your family at risk by doing it.”
Caffrey said she’s fighting for stronger scientific integrity protections. She said Moon’s example of having to change her language “shouldn’t happen.”