Fight back, scientists urged

By Bryan Walker 11/03/2010

’The response to the [email] vandals is to bury them with the data and experience of a century of scholarly research and analysis. The information that is important in making the decisions as to how to manage our world is unequivocal and must be advanced, not as questions at the edge of scientific knowledge where scientist like to dwell, but as the facts that they are, facts as immutable as the law of gravity. The climatic disruption is not a theory open to a belief system any more than the solar system is a theory, or gravity, or the oceanic tides, or evolution.’

Strong words from a scientist, but I felt an involuntary cheer as I read them on Joe Romm’s Climate Progress. They are from Dr. George Woodwell in an email to Romm. Woodwell is the founder, Director Emeritus, and Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Research Centre

Romm had invited comment from him in response to a Washington Times report of an email exchange between several scientists from the National Academy of Sciences discussing the need to fight back against the attempts by sceptics to portray the UEA emails and the IPCC error as ground for doubting the science of climate change.

’This is not the time to wring our hands over the challenges to hyper-scientific objectivity, the purity of scholars, and to tie ourselves in knots with apologies for alleged errors of trifling import.’

Here is the reality, which Woodwell expresses with a freshness of perception:

’The fact is that we, humans, have changed the composition of the atmosphere with respect to heat-trapping gases enough to start the progression of global climate, not into a new steady state, but into an open-ended warming that is pulling the environment out from under this civilization. If one wonders where that process leads, one need not look far around the world to find dysfunctional landscapes. Have a quick look at New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, or Haiti before the earthquake.  All have fallen far below any point where internal resources can be used to restore a nation with a functional political system, a vital economy, and a functional environment.’

Scientists need to come out fighting:

’The scientific community has done brilliantly with the IPCC, by nature a conservative apparatus. It is time now, thirty years after the problem was recognized as threatening this civilization, for the scientific community to come forth with clear instructions, relentlessly repeated and amplified, as to how to restore a functional habitat for humanity. It can be done, but the scientific community has a big responsibility not now widely recognized or accepted.’

Woodwell has had plenty of time to consider these matters.  Over twenty years ago, in 1988, he testified to a Senate committee under the title Rapid Global Warming: Worse With Neglect. The matters he raised then have continued to be prominent in the science in the intervening years, and the early warning he sounded has stood the test of time.  (The full text of his testimony is included on the Climate Progress post.)

James Hansen also gave his famous Congressional testimony that year, and continues today to bring his scientific concern about climate change to the attention of political leaders.  He is a splendid exemplar of Woodwell’s urging that the scientific community ’come forth with clear instructions, relentlessly repeated and amplified’. 

There is much advice circulating these days about how to get the message across successfully to the public.  Some of it suggests that the scientists should retreat to their domain of research and leave it to others to work on public opinion. That won’t work.  If the scientists are not constantly and publicly reiterating the seriousness of their findings it’s likely that the issue will continue to be treated with far less urgency than it requires.  It’s not always easy for scientists to take public roles, but they need to do it  more than ever as the campaigns of disinformation reach the peaks of activity we have seen in recent months. Bravo Woodwell and others like him.