By Katie Breen, Fall 2016 Fellow
Accusations of climate change as a Chinese hoax , National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA) and National Science Foundation (NSF) budget cuts, and outright climate change deniers in cabinet positions are among the changes under the upcoming Trump administration that climate scientists must overcome to do their research. With such obstacles, the results of climate studies might be ignored, if climate research even gets funded at all. The anti-science world that Donald Trump is motivating prompts the question, are scientists irrelevant for the next administration? I argue that scientists will be important as some of the most well-suited climate advocates to generate change during the Trump presidency.
Scientists have long been leaders in climate advocacy. There are scientist-advocate standouts, such as James Hansen, former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who quit his full-time science position to do more frequent and impactful climate advocacy; Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist who sits on the board for the Citizens Climate Lobby, a non-profit that calls for a carbon tax; and scientist and television star Bill Nye who uses his media platform to criticize Trump’s pick for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency and general climate skepticism.
Typical advocates are ones that care about communicating a cause. But as Hansen, Hayhoe, and Nye effectively demonstrate, scientists have added qualities that make them opportune advocates for climate awareness.
Here are 5 reasons that scientist-advocates will be among the best voices to influence policymakers in the next four years:
- They readily speak with authority on topics in their fields. They don’t just quote others as faithful essay writers, but they summarize work they know intimately, much of it their own. When Dr. Dr. Hansen told Congress in June 1988 that “If our model is approximately correct, such [droughts] may be more common in the next 10 to 15 years than they were in the period 1950 to 1980,” he is actually discussing what he is personally familiar with as a trained physicist. He could speak from the model he developed, and consequently his testimony initiated some of the first calls to action around climate change. With suspicion already high, readers and listeners will need to feel they’re hearing from primary sources, not secondary sources – a perspective that’s always more persuasive.
- They are continuously producing information on complex concepts with objectivity. Against an administration that gained support from climate hysteria and discredited climate change altogether, it will be important to continue to push back with provable facts, instead of flourishing rhetoric. The scientific method, ingrained in scientists from their earliest training, values the lack of influence from anything other than the observable. Additionally, the nature of the scientist career, and the priority of research, entails them to continue to further understanding. Combined, scientists can explain new details about climate change to encourage political change. During the Obama administration, climate science was taken as a given, and implementation was the focus. Now we can’t take the science for granted; it’s important as ever to empower scientists to broadcast their findings and the urgent need for action.
- The scarcity of scientists gives their work higher levels of exposure. Less than 1% of the U.S. population are trained scientists, and even fewer are experts in climate science. As a result, scientists tend to have special access to members of Congress, agency staff, journalists, and the public at large. For example, Nye exclusively met with President Obama, an experience atypical for the average advocate. When Hansen was arrested outside the White House in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013, it garnered special attention from the media. Incorporating scientists as activists is effective, because the small number opens the door for exclusive interactions with high-ranking officials and even more prominent acts of civil disobedience.
- Scientists are engaged in an inclusive scientific community, bound together by collaboration and a commitment to the discipline. As a community, scientists across different subject areas work in partnership to creatively engage challenging questions, and support one another through effective group work. Scientists seek to build upon previous work, striving to improve conclusions, and test new hypotheses. This community is especially powerful, as has already been seen in the weeks post-election: although Trump has discredited climate science, much of the scientific community has already banded together to demonstrate unified concern about Trump’s climate science neglect. Over 2,300 scientists, including 22 Nobel Prize winners, have signed onto an open letter to Trump calling on him to respect the integrity of science, writing, “We will continue to champion efforts that strengthen the role of science in policymaking and stand ready to hold accountable any who might seek to undermine it.” The signature list includes climate scientists as well as other scientists across various disciplines. The collaboration that is natural to the field puts scientists in a unique advocacy position, leveraging one another when the new administration will try to hit back. Mobilizing this community means that an attack on one sector, is counter-attacked with protection from the whole community.
- When scientists are advocates, with training they can powerfully convey their knowledge into layman’s terms. Scientists by training are required to communicate their work in what is accurate and precise, not necessarily what is simple and easily comprehensible. However, when scientists are trained to communicate their wealth of knowledge to diverse audiences, they can transcend from their dimension of scientific impact to community impact. This technique is what has made scientist-advocates, like Nye or Hansen, notable. Tapping into this technique, training scientists to translate their work from the scientific community to a community concerned with a cause, is the core at what makes scientists influential advocates.
Scientists have proven to be an invaluable source of advocacy, and will continue to be for the next administration. Funding for their projects may be tighter than previous years, but their role as advocates will be more needed than ever.
Still, significant challenges remain. It’s possible that fringe scientists will advocate for fringe science, or deny climate science altogether. Yet an overwhelming number of U.S. scientists believe in conventional climate science, 97%, according to a NASA study. This near-unanimity only reaffirms the need to include as many scientists as possible as climate advocates: to assure certainty in an area that is currently flanked with controversy.
Similarly, some members of the public may argue that scientists may not make effective advocates during a Trump presidency because current climate deniers won’t be swayed by science, even nearly unanimous science. Dan Kahan, a Yale law professor, surveyed 1,540 adults about climate change, and found that scientific literacy did not predict perceiving climate change as a greater risk. Expressing a view on climate change is often a statement of identity more than anything else. No matter the amount of scientific evidence presented, some Americans, currently the majority of Americans, will continue to refuse to believe in climate change. However, scientists can still be effective by focusing on the impacts of climate change on the local level. For example, at The Wilderness Society, it is possible to communicate with climate deniers in terms of drought, forest fires, clean water, clean air, and floods, especially when the impacts are local to them. While not directly addressing climate trends, these climate change impacts can be used to call for action to lower greenhouse gas emissions without mentioning the word climate. Even though scientists may not be advocating for climate change by that name, they can still use their science and their voice to recommend changes to prevent these local crises.
With science under threat, scientists will play a crucial role advocating for the incorporation of science into policy-making decisions. For a comparatively low cost, we can leverage that role with training workshops, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science Workshop on Advocacy in Science. Non-profits can harness more opportunities for scientists to get engaged in advocacy, whether it’s facilitating scientific community letters, scientific testimony at Congressional hearings, meeting with agency officials, and even the President-elect himself. While all the advocates typically engaged in the climate debate will be useful — athletes, celebrities, victims of climate impacts, advocates for outdoor recreation, and so on — the community needs to give scientists an elevated role to achieve success.
Katie Breen is a Fellow with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute and an Energy and Climate Policy Fellow with The Wilderness Society.