Global Warming: Should Scientists Speak Out?
A few weeks ago, a climate scientist called Tamsin Edwards published an article in the Guardian under the title “Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies“. Her argument boiled down to this quote:
“I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral.”
This post explains why I think she’s wrong.
In my opinion, there are two nearly-unique aspects of climate change that render Tamsin Edwards position untenable.
I say ‘nearly-unique’ because one aspect is at least shared with nuclear weapons; there are very few eureka moments that are immediately followed by head in hand dismay.
Casting about for an analogy, I thought about lasers. The invention of coherent light (remarkably, based on yet more groundbreaking work by Einstein) was very unlikely to produce a feeling of dismay in those working on it. While I doubt the Bell Labs and other scientists foresaw the internet and fibre optics – by now the most ubiquitous use of lasers, without which I wouldn’t be posting this, nor you reading it – neither were they likely to imagine their discoveries contributing to the destruction of the known world.
The same cannot be said of nuclear weapons. From the outset, it is clear that scientists were appalled by the potential of their work, the perversity of its application. The Russell-Einstein manifesto and the formation of Pugwash attest to their concerns, and that they chose to speak out, to leave the cosy confines of their ‘safe’ ivory towers to take issue with governments and the military. They did this too in an atmosphere of great anxiety; the cold war was not an environment conducive to ‘peacenik’ scientists and more than a few ended up on lists that nobody wanted to be on.
Climate change is another discovery that leads resolutely towards dismay, and little else. There are some very modest changes that may be beneficial, but these are so outweighed by the implicit destabilisation, damage, costs and suffering, it must have been clear from early on that climate change was, like nuclear weapons, a really bad thing.
In the first place then, climate change is a theory from which we can envision only detrimental consequences. This alone should propel scientists into the limelight, because they are the ones who know better than any of us just what danger we’re in right now. They must also be the ones most frustrated by our collective inaction, since they are closest and most familiar with the compelling nature of the evidence, the theory and the probabilities.
The second element of my argument concerns the driving forces of climate change. Whether Edwards and other scientists like it or not, the driver of global warming is not scientific, but social.
Climate science observes and predicts reactions to stimuli, but inputs to climate change originate in the social sphere. The problem is not some discovery put to bad uses. Climate science simply deconstructs what happens when a global society emits so much greenhouse gas as a consequence of lifestyle, ideology and economic choices, that we change the climate.
Tamsin Edwards appears to want to divorce cause from effect. CO2 creates warming, sure – but humans create the CO2. It is not possible, or desirable, to enforce some unrealistic border between our actions and the consequences of them. Science cannot remain aloof from the society that creates the problem science identifies. It is implicit, both morally and factually, that scientists must address and engage with the whole subject, not just a comfy bit they can do in private, free from grubby engagement with the civilisation they know full well is trying quite hard to destroy itself.
To sit silent, to refuse to speak out, reminds me of other terrible things in our past where people became complicit through their refusal to engage, to protest, to play an active part in society. If we are to speak of a moral duty, then the best informed among us surely have the greatest responsibility to act with a commitment commensurate with the scale of the problem.
People will die because of climate change. How can Edwards stay silent, when she knows that better than most? Her knowledge must also provide the impetus for her and others to speak out, or be relegated to history alongside all the passive people who watched from the sidelines as terrible things were done.