How do scientists get attention when their science is ignored?
By David Salt
Our elected leaders are ignoring the science on climate change, turning their back on an unfolding biodiversity catastrophe and, in so doing, increasing our vulnerability to ‘natural’ disasters while dispossessing future generations. If the scientist’s science is not making a difference, what’s a scientist supposed to do? Well, it seems increasingly they’re penning public letters to our elected leaders pleading with them to acknowledge the science and act on the evidence (rather than hide within their ideology and continue to prop up vested interests).
Last week, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries and multiple disciplines published an open letter in the journal BioScience calling for urgent action on climate change. It pointed out that science on climate change has been well known for the past 40 years and, indeed, had only grown stronger over that time. While the letter generated considerable media attention, it was largely ignored by our political leaders.
Strengthen our environmental law
A couple of weeks ago, 240 of Australia’s leading conservation scientists published an open letter to our Prime Minister calling for stronger environmental law to protect our imperilled biodiversity. This was done in the hope that a soon to be announced decadal review of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act might strengthen the legislation.
That review has since been announced but, despite considerable media attention given to the scientists’ letter, the government has framed the review as a way of making the environmental law more efficient, cutting the green tape that blocks economic development. And not one of the 240 scientists who signed the letter to the PM asking for stronger environmental law are on the EPBC Review Panel; indeed no biodiversity scientist is included.
Letters to governments from scientists are not an uncommon strategy employed to raise public awareness on issues, most often issues connected with sustainability. More than 12,000 European scientists signed a letter supporting the student climate strikes that took place in March this year. In New Zealand more than 1,500 academics released a similar statement of support.
Canadian scientists also seem very partial to a protest letter. Sixty Canadian scientists wrote to the Canadian PM on climate action in 2006. Eighteen hundred early-career researchers in Canada wrote to the Canadian Government in 2016 demanding scientific integrity in environmental decision making. And 250 international scientists signed a letter to the Canadian PM in 2017 warning about the international importance of Canada’s efforts on climate change.
A warning to humanity
One of the more notable letters penned by scientists on sustainability was the ‘World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity’, released back in 1992 by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It was signed by more than 1700 scientists including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences.
These concerned professionals called on humankind to cut back on our environmental destruction and cautioned that “a great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided.”
Now, surely in a rational world, when your best brains tell you we need to change because we’re heading for disaster, you sit up and listen. But did we? Not in any way that was really measurable.
You didn’t listen last time!
Twenty five years later in 2017 a new cohort of our ‘best brain’ scientists put out a second notice to humanity pointing out we didn’t listen to the 1992 warning. In this article they also showed graphs of resource use, carbon emissions and other key environmental indicators. In their timelines of these graphs they helpfully mark 1992, the year of the first letter. In almost all cases, consumption or levels of emissions either continued on their merry ascent or even increased in rate following the first ‘warning to humanity’. No government or industry, it seems, was too concerned by what the Union of Concerned Scientists thought was important.
In the second notice to humanity the authors wrote: “To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world’s leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning.”
So what is a letter worth? If the response to the second notice is the same as to the first (‘well articulated’) letter, expect business as usual to continue or even to ramp up.
The pros and cons of letters
It’s easy to be cynical about these letter-writing exercises. They often come over as self-righteous and pious. First notice: ‘Listen to me, I am your oracle scientist. If you keep doing what you’re doing you will be sorry.’ Second notice: ‘You didn’t listen to me last time, now you will be very very sorry if you don’t stop what you’re doing!’
As we discovered in Australia in our recent national elections, people don’t like being told they are wrong and need to change, even when the evidence is overwhelming that we do need to change.
There’s also the argument that while a ‘first’ letter sounds revelatory, by the time we reach the 14th letter, it’s beginning to sound whiny and possibly ‘crying wolf’.
Having said this, it’s easy to be cynical and when these letters come out the deniers, party hacks and apparatchiks line up to start throwing stones; it’s easy to be cynical, but possibly it’s not all that helpful. Scientists should be encouraged to take their concerns to the broader public more often. The have the insights and knowledge that will likely prove critical when we get serious about sustainability and climate change. They need to be an active part of the broader conversation.
Communicating with non-scientists on technical and complex issues is never easy. Scientists should be rewarded when they make the effort. Many universities are now encouraging their scientists to be more active in the communication of their science (and its impact on society) to a broader non-scientist audience. We need more, not less of it.
There’s also the argument that throwing out one warning is unlikely to shift society. Change is always a challenge; just ask anyone who attempted to shift the status quo. You need to keep throwing pebbles because you never know when a message cuts through possibly precipitating widespread change.
And sometimes – when the message is well crafted, the timing is right and the need is obvious to all – sometimes a letter is what really makes all the difference. Einstein wrote* to President Roosevelt in 1939 warning that Germany might develop an atomic bomb and suggested the US should start its own nuclear program – the rest is history.
*Actually, the letter was written by the Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd who few people knew and signed by Albert Einstein who everyone knew. The message was well crafted, the timing was right and the need obvious to all.