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If You See Something, Say Something

Filed under: — mike @ 17 January 2014

Gavin provided a thoughtful commentary about the role of scientists as advocates in his RealClimate piece a few weeks ago.

I have weighed in with my own views on the matter in my op-ed today in this Sunday’s New York Times. And, as with Gavin, my own views have been greatly influenced and shaped by our sadly departed friend and colleague, Stephen Schneider. Those who were familiar with Steve will recognize his spirit and legacy in my commentary. A few excerpts are provided below:

THE overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that human-caused climate change is happening. Yet a fringe minority of our populace clings to an irrational rejection of well-established science. This virulent strain of anti-science infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on TV, leading to the appearance of a debate where none should exist.


My colleague Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who died in 2010, used to say that being a scientist-advocate is not an oxymoron. Just because we are scientists does not mean that we should check our citizenship at the door of a public meeting, he would explain. The New Republic once called him a “scientific pugilist” for advocating a forceful approach to global warming. But fighting for scientific truth and an informed debate is nothing to apologize for.


Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger. The public is beginning to see the danger, too — Midwestern farmers struggling with drought, more damaging wildfires out West, and withering, record, summer heat across the country, while wondering about possible linkages between rapid Arctic warming and strange weather patterns, like the recent outbreak of Arctic air across much of the United States.


The piece ends on this note:

How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? How would I explain to the future children of my 8-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, but didn’t speak up in time?

Those are the stakes.

I would encourage interested readers to read the commentary in full at the New York Times website.

Constructive contributions are welcome in the comment section below :-)

606 Responses to “If You See Something, Say Something”

  1. 1
    David Sanger says:

    Here’s the direct NYT link:
    If You See Something, Say Something

    [Response: Much thanks David-fixed. I was sure I’d updated the placeholder link before posting, but apparently not. Glad you caught and brought to my attention. – mike]

  2. 2
    No climate scientist says:

    The rest of us could help by being your eyes and ears. Could Real Climate or some other group offer a way – a webform perhaps – to let you know of climate communication that might (or might turn out not to) benefit from a scientist’s attention?

    Also, what about communication that is scientifically accurate, but exacerbates or fails to dispel confusion about what policies are needed, realistically, to fix the problem? What expert should say something then?

  3. 3
    Larry Saltzman says:

    A brilliant article by Dr. Mann! We all need to speak up, scientist and scientifically literate citizens.

  4. 4
    Edward Greisch says:

    Another approach: James Hansen
    alerted us to a need for help
    “There is a request from Lansing, Michigan for expert assistance in trials of young protestors who blocked reconstruction of a pipeline that caused a major oil spill. They want to use the necessity defense, their actions being required to protect the environment and their own future. Expertise needed: (1) engineers with knowledge about pipeline risk and reliability, (2) scientists with knowledge of climate change that could be caused by tar sands development.”
    “If you are in Michigan and have relevant expertise the contact is Kathy Murphy

    I answered Kathy Murphy saying in part: “The young people are in self defense.  The bullet will take 40 years to arrive, but it can’t be stopped later.  So at what time when the bullet is traveling down the barrel are you allowed to shoot back?  The Koch brothers should be in jail for genocide. GW [Global Warming] is killing a million(s) of people each year already.  Search for number of people killed already and where.  The crime has been committed and continues to be committed.  So stop the felony in progress.”

    Kathy Murphy thanked me, saying “Your analysis of the situation really helps put things in the right perspective.”

    This legal approach is different from writing an op ed, but is a form of speaking. I hope we all got Dr. Hansen’s letter. RealClimate people are the natural people to help with this case. If Kathy Murphy manages to turn the tables, this could be a landmark in law and in the public discussion. So please help Kathy Murphy if you can.

  5. 5

    Good commentary, Dr. Mann! Thanks, and agreed (FWIW.)

  6. 6
    John Williams says:

    ‘Who is silent gives consent.’ The only way to convince the public that climate change is a serious to problem is to act as if we think it is. With civil disobedience, Hanson is showing the way.

  7. 7
    Russell says:

    Invoking TSA plays directly into the hands of hype hunters looking for targets of oportunity.

    In 2004, London’s Institute for Strategic Studies , a body as sober-sided as the IPCC, estimated al Qaeda’s total strength to be in the range form 3,000 to 18,000,

    Yet after a decade of decimation and constant vigilance , the TSA has 975,000 names on its No Fly list.

    Do you really want climate scientists to adapt the Best Pactices of the most ridiculed administrative body in recent American history ?

    You’ll have plenty of time to reflect on the consequences of the Precautionary Principle run amok the next time you wait in line at an airport.

  8. 8
    Hank Roberts says:

    There should be a journal for Cassandra studies, somewhere — studying how it is that people remain so oblivious to what’s discovered, for so long after it’s discovered.

    among others:

    R Rabin. Warnings unheeded: a history of child lead poisoning. American Journal of Public Health December 1989: Vol. 79, No. 12, pp. 1668-1674. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.79.12.1668‎

    … The likelihood that climate change will fundamentally alter basic ecosystem services important to public health (Myers and Patz 2009; Schroter et al. 2005). Examples are abundant, including ecosystem shifts driving increased bioaccumulation of toxins such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (Carrie et al. 2010) and the potential for groundwater salinity as a result of saltwater intrusion from sea level rise (Khan et al. 2008).

    The likelihood that climate change will result in abrupt ecosystem shifts (Walther 2010) favoring the introduction or reemergence of diseases for which effective surveillance and management practices are not yet in place. An example of this is the 2004 outbreak of Vibrio parahaemolyticus associated with Alaskan oysters harvested during an unusually warm period, which abruptly shifted the northernmost range of the endemic area for this disease by 1,000 km (McLaughlin et al. 2005)….

  9. 9
    doug says:

    I believe that the most effective way to be effective, is to get in the face so to speak of the oil billionaires, and hopefully to *force* them to understand what they are doing. These billionaires do not see much of what we do and comment on. A walled off mentality, and in many cases literally walling oneself off from the majority of people has taken root among our billionaires. This is why we need to be creative to “get in their face”. Occupy Wallstreet had it right by taking protests right up to the personal homes of the elite. Then these people were forced to see them. There are obviously many ways we could get our messages so that the elite see them. It just takes some creativity.

    Almost certainly the billionaires that are most responsible for continuing keeping us addicted to fossil fuels, do not really understand climate science. I am sure they have walled themselves off from knowing how much agreement there is among climate scientists that greenhouse gases are responsible for Earth’s warming. Getting this information to them is exactly what I am talking about. It could take some hard work, and patience and thinking outside of the box to get these truths in front of the Koch brothers and the like.

    One could cynically say that people like the Kochs do know the truth but don’t care. I doubt that is the case. They are human beings after all, with children and grandchildren. They must care about the future as well.

    We should not underestimate the bubbles these people live in, and it is our responsibility to burst them, perhaps gently, but to burst them.

    When we just talk among ourselves, for the most part it is waisted energy. It is time to make yourself known, and what you know and believe to these elite.

  10. 10
    Pete best says:

    Of course when all the peer reviewing has been done and the work has entered the annals of science as currently the best interpretation of the data based on what is understood about such matters then yes please speak out.

    Of course even if science does speak of what we know it does not necessarily matter to some as our system states that politics comes first and that makes for some odd decisions at time to those who are not politicians or involved in the political sphere.

  11. 11
    Lance Olsen says:

    “To point out that we now live in troubled times is trite. It has been made clear in many quarters for almost a decade … we have become conscious of … the energy crisis, the full nature of which the American public is still only dimly aware …. The individual scientist can survive for a long time by lying low in the valley of specialized intellectual interest … We in science must get up and face the wind, confront the future.”

    William Bevan, “The Sound of the Wind That’s Blowing.”
    American Psychologist. July 1976

  12. 12
    Michael Walther says:

    In Germany academic teacher have still the title Professor, to profess something it’s part of the job, it seems.

  13. 13
    Arun says:

    When you speak up about what your scientific speciality says about climate change, you are speaking as an expert; when you advocate a particular policy, estimation of the impact of which requires knowledge of economics, laws and regulations in foreign lands, trade and technology trends in addition to your scientific speciality, you are speaking as a citizen, and have no more authority than anyone else. As long as everyone concerned recognizes that, including yourself, it should be fine.

  14. 14
    Susan Anderson says:

    So pleased – if you can call it that – to see the stark truth in print. Wish there was more of it.

  15. 15
    John McCormick says:

    John McCormick says:
    18 Jan 2014 at 8:47 AM

    Dr. Mann, “Until the public fully understands the danger of our present trajectory,” is the rationale for putting off the national and global response to the trajectory leading the planet’s organisms to a sixth extinction.

    We are living in the dark ages of political discourse that questions evolution, age of our planet and science, in general. Our salvation must come from top down where governments act to save lives.

    The Center for Disease Control marshals the best minds in disease prevention by employing world-class scientists to research, propose and implement sometimes drastic policies to avert catastrophe. When CDC issues a declaration of danger from an exotic microbe, a terrorist’s biological weapon or whatever poses a threat to human health, orders are immediately issued to take action. That could enforce the elimination of stock animals, plants or products known to present that threat. Nobody questions the CDC’s authority, science or advocacy when it goes into action. It does not wait for a fully informed public, farmer, importer, manufacturer, florist, pet shop or any politician.

    I see no difference between Dr. Jim Hansen and Dr. Tom Frieden CDC Director and disease detective. He sees his mission as putting science into action for safer, healthier people.

    So, I am led to ask who is the audience for your opinion piece?

    From the CDC Mission Statement, climate scientists can take some measure of advocacy and do some straight talking to the public so that it is fully informed. The risk of holding back for fear of being sidelined as an alarmist, lefty or worse is a good deal less than the chaos delivered by the trajectory on which we are heading.

    The CDC Mission Statement:

    CDC increases the health security of our nation. As the nation’s health protection agency, CDC saves lives and protects people from health threats. To accomplish our mission, CDC conducts critical science and provides health information that protects our nation against expensive and dangerous health threats, and responds when they arise.

    Putting science into action is what CDC is all about. It starts with the research and moves on to policy, then action. A sensible way to avert catastrophe or chaos is to pull on the fire alarm.

    And, many thanks for your lifetime dedication to your science.

  16. 16
    CPV says:

    Sorry to disagree, but the problems with this type of science advocacy are obvious and manifest. Once a scientist is “out” in the public square advocating vigorously for certain scientific conclusions and policy responses that will inevitably affect his activities in the scientific sphere. These effects need not be obviously corrupt, but they will include things like choice of research topics, affiliation with like minded colleagues, on-the-margin suppression of opposing viewpoints in scientific journals, less than vigorous pursuit of contradictory hypotheses, etc. It’s human nature, and it’s been quite visible in the scientist/activist community in climate science for quite some time.

  17. 17
    Radge Havers says:

    It seems to me that scientists have already done a good job of holding up their primary obligation, i.e. providing good science. The bottleneck is with the policy makers.

    If critical goods have been delivered to the loading dock in good order, and the dock workers insist on sitting around picking their noses instead of moving things along, it’s reasonable to kick up a fuss. And if that doesn’t do the trick, the next logical step is to pitch in and do what needs to be done yourself– shoving aside the laggards if necessary.

    “Most Romans believed that their system of government was the finest political invention of the human mind. Change was inconceivable. Indeed, the constitution’s various parts were so mutually interdependent that reform within the rules was next to impossible. As a result, radicals found that they had little choice other than to set themselves beyond and against the law. This inflexibility had disastrous consequences as it became increasingly clear that the Roman state was incapable of responding adequately to the challenges it faced. Political debate became polarized into bitter conflicts, with radical outsiders trying to press change on conservative insiders who, in the teeth of all the evidence, believed that all was for the best under the best of all possible constitutions.” 
    ― Anthony Everitt, Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician

  18. 18
    Spike says:

    It’s a good article. Frankly hand wringing about boundaries is inappropriate in the face of an existential threat to humanity and biodiversity and strikes me as somewhat precious. I doubt our grandchildren will thank us for it.

  19. 19
    Alastair McDonald says:


    While I agree with everything you and Gavin say, I wonder how many laymen and, more importantly, scientists are going to have their minds changed by these articles. From what I can gather, peoples minds are not changed by reason. They are changed by emotional arguments. That is where Stephen Schneider got it right when he said we have to offer up scary scenarios.

    Of course the deniers argue that this means lying, but it does not. If no action is taken to curb the emissions of CO2 then the future is scary! We have to point this out to the public. That should be our message, not that the science proves that CO2 causes global warming. The latter is a straw man argument got up by our enemies to divert us and the public from confronting the real issues.

    And if we are going to switch to emotional arguments then we need a bogey man. That is the tactic that the sceptic think tanks adopted when they attacked you, Mike. We have to fight fire with fire. But the candidates for demonisation need careful selection otherwise it could backfire.

    In summary, we should not be advocating carbon taxes, geo-engineering, or rationing of fuel. We should be warning of the consequences of taking no action i.e. tell scary stories.

    But is this argument emotional enough? Or will we scientists continue to sit in our ivory towers playing with our equations? Meanwhile, wild fires driven by global warming will convert bountiful states such as Texas, California, Chile, and Victoria in Oz into deserts e.g.

    Cheers, Alastair.

  20. 20
    Hank Roberts says:

    > when you advocate a particular policy

    “Stop” is not a particular policy.

    > estimation of the impact of which
    > requires knowledge of economics

    Now that’s silly–economics failed already.
    Economics applauded creating this disastrous situation.

    No tech will be more important than efficiency and sustainability tech. And those who obstruct such things are the purest villains ever produced.

  21. 21
    Susan Anderson says:

    What Spike said (~16)

    captcha: pledges eminently

  22. 22
    Maiken says:

    Thank you for this great short article! I have been debating the role of climate scientists with a variety of folks, and unfortunately, often scientists seem to be afraid to lose their scientific credibility when speaking up. I never understood that.

    When I found out that Henslow´s Sparrows need large prairie fragments to nest successfully, then of course I´d speak up for the conservation of large grassland areas and against policies that´d allow prairies to be fragmented even further. Who else but me and other grassland bird scientists would be competent to comment on those matters?
    So why should climate scientists not do the same for sustainable lifestyles, renewable energies and politics that drastically reduce carbon emissions? I hope your article will help to activate more scientists to speak up. Thanks!

  23. 23
    simon abingdon says:

    How will history judge us if we watch the threat unravel before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert economic disaster?

  24. 24
    Donald Brown says:

    A strong ethical argument can be made that scientists who conclude that there is strong evidence that citizens in their country are harming people around the world and putting millions of others at risk have a duty to speak up. If for instance a scientist learned that there was evidence that an out of control railway train was speeding toward a bus filled with people and the train could be diverted to avoid the harm, the scientist would have an ethical duty to speak up. Knowledge of potential serious harm creates responsibilities particularly in cases where the harms could be avoided. Knowledge sometimes create obligations. This is particularly the case for scientists when the vast majority of scientists agree that some are putting others at great risk.

  25. 25
    Ronal Larson says:

    Dr. Mann

    I support all in your NYT article. But you left out three key words: Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR). Most of the scientists you mentioned (Hansen, Caldeira, Sachs) have their names on papers supporting at least afforestation, but often more. I have searched unsuccessfully for Steve Schneider’s views – and could only find support for study – not implementation of anything. I think he, as a biologist, would have supported biochar – my favorite. Biochar’s problem is that it is so new, receiving its present name less than 7 years ago. Many climate analysts (eg Lenton, Lovelock) place biochar at or near the top of their CDR lists. There is no way to keep to 2 degrees, much less 1 degree rise without CDR. CDR is justified immediately by the polluter pays principle.
    This past week’s report by Reuter’s that Volume III of the AR5 report will be calling for considerable CDR probably occurred after your editorial deadline. Many of your supporters would like to know that you also can support some forms of CDR.


  26. 26
    DIOGENES says:

    Alastair McDonald #17,

    “we have to offer up scary scenarios.”

    Actually, all you need is to offer up the truth; that is scary enough. The truth has been published extensively in the literature, and is quite straight-forward. There are four interesting climate change numbers that need to be addressed in an integrated manner. First, we have Hansen’s prior-Holocene-based target temperature ceiling increase of ~1 C. Second, we have Anderson’s agreement with Hansen’s target, further stating that many climate scientists agree. Additionally, we have Anderson’s computations showing that ~10% CO2 emissions reduction per annum is required for years to stay within a (dangerous) 2 C ceiling target, and these numbers don’t include the adverse effects of major carbon cycle feedbacks. Third, we have the EIA stating that “global energy-related CO2 emissions will rise from 31.2 billion metric tons in 2010 to 36.4 billion metric tons in 2020, and 45.5 billion metric tons in 2040 — an increase of 46 percent over 30 years.”

    Finally, we have estimates of what would happen if all CO2 emissions were to cease soon. Hare and Meinshausen, 2006, predicted that cessation of CO2 emissions would result in a further temperature increase of 0.4 C, raising the total temperature increase to ~1.2 C in a decade or two. MacDougall et al, Journal of Climate, Dec 2013, stated:

    “In a scenario of zeroed CO2 and sulfate aerosol emissions, whether the warming induced by specified constant concentrations of non-CO2 greenhouse gases could slow the CO2 decline following zero emissions or even reverse this trend and cause CO2 to increase over time is assessed. It is found that a radiative forcing from non-CO2 gases of approximately 0.6 W m(-2) results in a near balance of CO2 emissions from the terrestrial biosphere and uptake of CO2 by the oceans, resulting in near-constant atmospheric CO2 concentrations for at least a century after emissions are eliminated.” In “Climate response to zeroed emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols”, Matthews and Zickfeld (2012) concluded:

    ‘Eliminating all emissions led to a peak followed by decline in non-CO2 forcing, which drove a global warming of 0.3  °C over a decade, followed by a gradual cooling that converged with the CO2-only result after about a century’.

    So, we need no more than a temperature increase of ~1.1 C to (hopefully) stay out of the real danger zone. If we reduce emissions by ~10% annually for decades, resulting in essentially zero emissions by well before 2040, we should be able to stay within (dangerous) 2 C. If we reduce emissions by 100%, according to the above, we get to the upper limit of what Hansen views as ‘safe’. If, however, we GROW emissions by ~1% per annum, as the most likely scenario from EIA predicts, and the CO2 emissions in 2040 are over 40% greater than those of 2010, then we would probably be in serious, in fact extremely serious, trouble. How do we reconcile the emissions we need by 2040 (~0) with those projected from BAU? I cannot think of another endeavor where we are two orders of magnitude away from an extremely critical target, and there are NO precursors showing ANY movement to close the gap!

    But, even on this blog, the ‘scary’ scenario of what we can expect is insufficient. We have advocates assuring us that rapid introduction of renewables, or rapid introduction of nuclear, or rapid introduction of carbon capture, are all we need to avoid catastrophe; no need for sharp demand reductions independent of non-fossil technology introduction. What the above (conservative non-carbon feedback) numbers tell us is very clear: strong reduction in demand in the near term is required if we are to avoid going much above Hansen’s prior-Holocene experience target of ~1.1 C (we are basically committed to the upper limit of Hansen’s recommendation already), along with introduction of renewables to prepare for a carbon-free future. See the comments in Unforced Variations; very little support for the hard reality even among climate advocates!

  27. 27
    Pete Dunkelberg says:

    Thanks Mike for yet another good article. Business As Usual(BAU)is a scary scenario. Policy? What makes it seem complex is failure to say first things first and work from there. If we burn all available carbon there is a very high probability of great harm resulting. So stop burning carbon. Leave it in the ground. Use other energy sources.

    Problems? Carbon is massively subsidized, making other energy appear to be more expensive (relative to carbon)than it need be. Dollars are spent to discourage the use of alternate energy. In short, politics.

    Some other countries have already achieved a high percentage of alternate energy. The methods are known. Just get to work and deploy them.

    People making counter arguments, please distinguish between risk and “the future has not happened yet, so there is not absolute proof of what will happen. Climate scientists are very qualified to speak of the risk of BAU. Some may have studied alternate energy sources as well. Failing that, a policy of “Deploy it!” and let the relevant engineers handle the details is surely justified.

  28. 28
    Hank Roberts says:

    From Bill Chameides’ blog:
    On Meeting Obama, His Innovation Initiative, and His Priorities

    … The meat of the president’s speech was about the Next Generation Power Electronics Innovation Institute — a $140 million project involving a university-corporation consortium led by North Carolina State University and aimed at developing next-generation wide bandgap semiconductors [pdf] ( ) capable of improving the efficiency of electronic chips and other devices.

    This center is one of three planned hubs ( ) for manufacturing innovation ( ) . (The other two, yet to be announced, will focus on “digital manufacturing and design innovation” and “lightweight metal innovation.”)…

    But what did spark my enthusiasm was the president’s decision that the first of the three manufacturing innovation centers is focused on energy efficiency. I think I’ll score that one for the environment.

  29. 29
    Alastair McDonald says:


    You are correct that the future is scary, but your post does not mention anything that would scare the general public. In fact you say “So, we need no more than a temperature increase of ~1.1 C to (hopefully) stay out of the real danger zone.” That is not scary; that is hopeful!

    What we have to do is lay out the consequences of going over 2C, and truthfully lay out what we think will occur. We must not shy away from that just because we are not sure. We have got to be honest and explain our fears.

    For instance, we do not know what causes abrupt climate change. It could strike at any moment now that we are disturbing the climate. If such a change occurred it would be impossible to stop or undo. We know this: Abrupt Impacts of Climate Change: Anticipating Surprises (2013), but we have failed to warn the public.

    Why? Is it because we are not willing to face up to the terrible consequences of our actions? Burning fossil fuels which took hundreds of millions of year to form within hundreds of years. Are we too ashamed that our generation has not only consumed the birthright of our children, but also that of the developing nations?

    Scary stories and truth are the same thing!

  30. 30
    SecularAnimist says:

    Diogenes wrote: “We have advocates assuring us that rapid introduction of renewables, or rapid introduction of nuclear, or rapid introduction of carbon capture, are all we need to avoid catastrophe; no need for sharp demand reductions independent of non-fossil technology introduction.”

    I am one of the advocates of rapidly scaling up renewable (wind and solar) electricity generation to completely replace fossil fueled electricity generation as quickly as possible — and I believe that the ongoing, rapid and accelerating deployment of wind and solar demonstrates that it is possible to virtually eliminate GHG emissions from electricity generation much faster, and at much lower cost, than most people think. That’s a very important thing to do, since emissions from electric power plants are a big part of the GHG problem.

    However, I have NEVER said that there is “no need for sharp demand reductions”. In fact, I have repeatedly stressed that, as reported by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, much more than half of all the USA’s primary energy consumption is outright wasted, so there are plenty of opportunities to drastically reduce “demand” by reducing waste and inefficiency.

    Which is a point that seems often overlooked by those who stress the need for demand reduction and imply that it requires draconian sacrifices by the general public:

    The “demand” is not really for “energy”, but for the goods and services that energy can provide. Since the opportunities for reducing waste and inefficiency are so huge, and since solutions for doing so are already in hand, and since much more powerful solutions emerging daily, there is plenty of room to reduce energy use without depriving anyone of the goods and services that are actually what’s “in demand”.

    In a nutshell: maximally efficient use of 100 percent renewable, zero-emission energy sources.

  31. 31
    Russell says:

    Allistair: In the decades after Steve Schneider made his famous quote about media hype in the ‘nuclclar winter ‘ controversy I often had to defend the co-author of ‘Nuclear Winte ‘ Reappraised against those incorrrigibly bent on using ellipsis of the most sophomoric sort to reverse the sense of what he said about media hype when climate models first collided with Madison Avenue.

    Factoids have a strange life of their own, and so many of the talking heads that got their start mangling Steve’s words have gone on to misrepresent climate science today that he may by now be better known by deliberate misquotation than for the sense of what he actually said.

  32. 32
    Steve Fish says:

    I like it! Further, because of the unearned crap you have put up with from the anti-science crowd, you are in a good take-the-high-road position to speak out. Keep up the good work. Steve

  33. 33
    nigelmj says:

    I think scientists need to speak out more as long as its carefully measured comment. Of course the general rule is scientists should be detached, for obvious reasons, but every rule has exceptions.

    Scientists would argue let the science speak for itself. Thats the problem, the science doesnt speak for itself on climate change, its very complex for the public to grasp. Climate scientists speaking directly would add credibility. If they believe climate change is a real risk, they can certainly reinforce that and why wouldn’t they? Can scientists just sit back mute in the corner?

    Right now only a couple of scientists speak out, like Hansen. This means he comes across as rather extreme. You need a more united voice and a measured voice.

  34. 34
    ozajh says:

    Alastair #29,

    Your comment about the general public is spot on. I am reminded of a wonderful bit of dialogue in the 1950’s SF novel ‘The Kraken Wakes’ when the protagonist attempts to alert people to the extent of the aliens’ underwater engineering works, making reference to a small rise in a sea level indicator. When taken to task, he points out that the rise multiplied by the ocean surface area is an enormous amount of water, and is told that the ordinary person will treat that statement as indicating a trivial change.

    People treat a 2 degree rise the same way, especially in the US where the general public REACTS Fahrenheit even when (if?) they know the number is Celsius.

  35. 35
    prokaryotes says:

    nigelmj: This means he comes across as rather extreme.

    What exactly do you think is extreme?

  36. 36
    DIOGENES says:


    There are three simultaneous conditions that have to be fulfilled to achieve the results you want. First, climate (and other) scientists need to speak out at every opportunity to alert the public of the impending (and present) danger. Second, the climate scientists need to have a clear, simple, and unified message to present; otherwise, the public will be confused and do little. Third, the message has to be consistent with what the hard numbers predict; otherwise, it will not address the real-world problem.

    What are the numbers, and what is the required message? I have pointed the numbers out in #26. Hansen (and others) state that keeping within the limits of prior Holocene experience (~1.1-1.2 C) may be relatively safe for our species, although severe damage will have been done. The studies I quote in #26 are among many that examine the temperature peaks associated with eliminating fossil fuel combustion today. They show that, at a minimum, with conservative assumptions, we have already committed to at least 1.2 C, with others of that ilk showing higher temperatures.

    Think about what that means. We have used up our allowable carbon budget according to what Hansen, Anderson, and others believe is relatively safe. ANY further fossil fuel combustion puts us further away from prior Holocene experience, and into a potentially dangerous regime. Therefore, the only message that makes any sense under these conditions is a hard emissions minimization scenario. Unfortunately, there is no agreement with this in the general climate science community, and certainly not on the pages of this blog. Without these three conditions being fulfilled, we will not make real progress in solving the problems that need to be solved.

  37. 37
    DIOGENES says:

    Alastair #29,

    “You are correct that the future is scary, but your post does not mention anything that would scare the general public. In fact you say “So, we need no more than a temperature increase of ~1.1 C to (hopefully) stay out of the real danger zone.” That is not scary; that is hopeful!”

    Not very many people have accused me of offering a hopeful message; you may be the first. Two points. First, the particular post you reference also shows primary sources that conclude if we stop burning fossil fuels TODAY, we are already committed to a peak temperature increase of at least 1.2 C. This is with conservative assumptions (including no carbon cycle feedbacks), and other studies of this ilk predict higher temperatures. This means that ANY further combustion of fossil fuel places us further away from prior Holocene experience, and into an unknown danger zone. If you view that as a ‘hopeful’ message, then we have a different perspective on the meaning of ‘hopeful’.

    Second, as I have posted previously in the last month or so, the global climate models predict that, with BAU, we are headed for ~5 C by the end of the century. According to those who have studied life under such conditions, like Mark Lynas (Six Degrees), many species go extinct under those temperatures, including ours. And, that is the good news. These models do not include the major carbon cycle feedbacks, which only exacerbate the temperature rise, and bring potential extinction closer in time. In my view, the default condition under BAU is extinction of our species somewhere between end of century and one or two generations before. That doesn’t sound too hopeful to me.

    And, what are the chances we will remain on a BAU trajectory? As I have shown in #26, “we have the EIA stating that “global energy-related CO2 emissions will rise from 31.2 billion metric tons in 2010 to 36.4 billion metric tons in 2020, and 45.5 billion metric tons in 2040 — an increase of 46 percent over 30 years.” ” I place far more credibility in the projections of the EIA than those of the ideologues on this blog, and the EIA is basically saying that we will continue on our present reckless path for the foreseeable future. That also doesn’t sound very hopeful. You may not find the above message scary enough; I do!

  38. 38
    No climate scientist says:

    ““Stop” is not a particular policy.”
    And it’s not that helpful, since it just brings us up to the next step on the ladder of resistance. What have we learned from the previous steps, that could help us minimize time spent on this one?

    Explain it like I’m five: What policies and actions are politically and practically feasible, that would cut emissions effectively? How could we realistically and fairly get there? Why should I find your advocacy of them more convincing than, say, someone else’s plugging of actions that are misguided or utterly insufficient?

  39. 39
    Alastair McDonald says:


    It seems not only have you misunderstood what I am saying, but you are also a little confused about Schneider’s remarks. I will quote them in full from Wikipedia, where there is also a link to a re-quote he made himself when explaining how his ideas had been distorted.

    On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts.

    As I see it, this is a major problem. If scientists continue to be pedantic with the truth then we are all doomed. We are not going to convince the public that they must take action, if we continue to prevaricate about what we know. We must spell out our fears. That is what I believe Schneider was said when he continued:

    On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change [my emphasis]. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This ‘double ethical bind’ we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

    What I am saying is that there is a formula to solve the double ethical bind. We need only be honest about our fears. There is no need to lie. But I have one caveat. We scientist must also be honest with ourselves and face up to just how disastrous things could become. We must stop burying our heads in the sand, because if we don’t then we cannot expect the public to do so either, and the result will be disastrous.

    At present the public are not going to demand action until they can see that climate change is taking effect. That means a series of hurricanes, droughts, wild fires, and floods. The USA has already suffered these, but they have not been enough to persuade the public at large to take action. When the signs become undeniable, then because of the “climate commitment” it will be too late to prevent catastrophe. This is just simple logic.

  40. 40
    Charles Worringham says:

    CPV (Comment 16) expresses the concern that once a scientist takes a public stand on an issue, he or she is likely to succumb to various pressures that can undermine scientific objectivity, encourage confirmation bias, etc. I suggest that these risks are very small, largely because taking a public position tends to make people even more careful with their science. A far greater problem, in my view, are those scientists and researchers in various fields who accept funds from certain vested interests even if they are aware of possible harms associated with the work – and say NOTHING publicly. Silence doesn’t always signify objectivity. I also suggest that those of us with a scientific training who work in other fields but have a fair grasp of the issues have some obligation to speak out on climate change – within the bounds of our understanding. After all, we are far more numerous than our colleagues in climate science. There should be no contradiction between working like a scientist and behaving like a citizen, and if there is, it’s probable that the second role is the more important one.

  41. 41
    Hmmm says:

    A drive-by comment, if that’s OK:

    What does it take in terms of climate change/CO2 concentration to trigger a large reduction in the ocean’s oxygen production?

    Is there a reasonably likely climate change scenario that would reduce atmospheric O2 below the level at which an average human dies within an hour?

    If that is a reasonable possibility (I have no knowledge to determine this), then the resulting 50% or so population reduction would mitigate or even solve issue.

  42. 42
    DHouck says:

    Scientists have done their duty and don’t need to get too far out there on policy issues. The public has heard them loud and clear. They don’t want to make any changes. It is not the result of poor leadership etc., they just don’t want to change. It’s like watching a slow train wreck coming. So be it.

  43. 43

    to No climate scientist #38 re: “Stop”

    “Stop” is a perfect policy statement. Succinct and representative.

    It can stand for “stop carbon emissions, stop business-as-usual, stop ignoring the problem, stop being passive, stop carbon industry bribery, stop opposing the future. Stop, etc”

    I think most any 5 year old child can understand breathing clean air and not getting too hot and not too cold. And animals and plants stressed in our world. It’s much harder to explain oil company tax subsidies.

    (hmm such a 5 year old will be entering middle age by 2050 )

    And it is totally appropriate for science to dictate policy. Crucially so, public policy cannot be allowed to ignore science when the consequences are infinite.

    There are hundreds of things in policy to “stop”: Stop using carbon fuel to power the grid. Stop opposing a tax on carbon. Stop ignoring the true cost of coal. etc.

    Perhaps even convert all carbon industries to a federal utility and then stop carbon energy production and then drown it in a bathtub. (where did I hear that last phrase?)

  44. 44
    Russell says:

    Steve and I concurred that hyperbole corrodes scientific credibility, witness our separate critiques of the selling of nuclear winter, but we differed in our estimates of how the episode might impact the future credibility of climate sciencee.

    In 1984, I told him , and others, that I considered the professional PR campaign designed to advance Sagan’s political agenda to be a sort of bad joke played on strategic policy analysts at the expense of the credibility of climate modeling on the eve of the warming debate — this was half a decade before Jim Hansen’s testimony .

    I argued that Moore’s Law notwithstanding, further exercises in existential threat inflation or sematic aggression might alienate a policy community already wary of the polemic abuse of global systems models because the ‘energy crisis ‘ had just morphed into ‘the oil glut” of the early 1980’s– the IPCC’s recent PR woes pale in comparison to the implosion of the Club of Rome’s authority.

    What I find scary about framing is that it once again amplifies the temptation to deploy one set of facts for internal scientific discussion and another for public discourse.

    Things have gotten quite bizarre enough with the denialati declaring their entitlement to their own facts without others following suit.

  45. 45
    JS says:

    I watched Gavin’s lecture, and I was recommended by YT a video of debate of Stephen Schneider with skeptics:

    It was very enjoyable, although the anger in the eyes of the “skeptics” was intimidating. The only issue I had was that it was rather short, so they really didn’t get to cover much of the issue.

    It reminded me of the talk show Atheist Experience (, which is hosted by volunteer atheists and aimed at people who believe in God, they can call in and they can learn about atheism by debating with the hosts. So they actively outreach to the other side, and I think they converted quite a lot of people in the process.

    I think there should be more events like this, maybe even a talk show in similar format to A.E., about climate change and climatology, it seems to me that this is really a way forward in communication. So I hope someone will read this and maybe will try this idea too.

  46. 46
    Ray Ladbury says:

    nigelmj: “Of course the general rule is scientists should be detached, for obvious reasons, but every rule has exceptions.”

    “Right now only a couple of scientists speak out, like Hansen. This means he comes across as rather extreme.”

    Dude, do you even know any scientists. “Detached” is not a word that comes to mind when describing them. They are passionate about their field of study and often much else. Given what James Hansen’s research has shown, how, precisely has he been “extreme”.

  47. 47
    DougL says:

    I am involved witha project developing a graduate certificate program, a series of 5 graduate level courses called Science and the Public Interface at SF Austin State University. This point where scientists doing science and advocates doing activism, advocacy and public education is a gap to be filled. The communicators need to be better at science and the scientists better at communication or a third central role that has fine tuned communication skills and a dedication to absolute scientific integrity.

  48. 48
    Hank Roberts says:

    > We have advocates assuring us that rapid introduction
    > of renewables,… nuclear, or … carbon capture, are
    > all we need to avoid catastrophe; no need for sharp
    > demand reductions

    Not here we don’t. As you have no name and no publications,
    point to where you’re seeing what you think you’re seeing.
    Otherwise people will wonder if you’re imagining things.

    > explain like I’m five

    When you get older, you will be able learn the math, program a computer, and check this work on this for yourself. Until then, find someone you can trust and pay attention.

  49. 49

    Perhaps you could address your scientific powers towards my unfolding blog about the omission of 80 years of ocean pH data from the record of ocean acidification. As scientists you would understand the need for full disclosure of data omission. When you see something that doesn’t seem right, say something, as you say. That’s what I’ve done on that blog and elsewhere, but for some reason, no one can seem to say anything.

  50. 50
    sh says:

    Re JS: that’s about as clear a case of Dunning-Kruger as I’ve ever seen! We have a bus driver, a 15 year old boy and a cattle rancher arguing about climate change with Steve Schneider! Unbelievable.