Scientists Are Citizens, Too
We had just recently moved to Seattle when my wife, one-year-old son, and I were invited to a neighbor’s house for a barbeque. It was a warm summer evening, and I got to talking to our neighbor’s mother, who was visiting from Vermont. She asked what I did, and I told her that I was scientist, a professor, and that I studied climate change. In 2007, mentioning that one studied climate change often ended the conversation, or at least required a bit of explaining. But this woman was neighbors with Bill McKibben, the author and founder of 350.org. I didn’t need to explain climate change to her.
We began exchanging facts about what climate change was doing to the world – its effects on wildlife, water, plants, food security, and human health. So much for the cheery summer cookout. After a half hour or so, the grandmother asked me what I was going to give my son to allow him to live in this changing world. I wasn’t able to give her a decent answer.
At that time, I had thought extensively about how climate change will affect plants and animals – how species would respond to climate change, how relationships between species might change, and how landscapes could be altered. But I had not spent much time thinking about how climate change would impact people, including the people I love most, my family.
Nature will be fine. Yes, some species will go extinct – some already have – but the species that remain will reorganize themselves by forming new ecosystems and communities. People, however, won’t get off so easy. Fires, floods, coastal storm impacts, famine, water shortages, military conflicts, and disease outbreaks are all expected to become more frequent and/or more intense as the climate continues to change. The World Health Organization estimates that, worldwide, climate change was responsible for the loss of 5.5 million disability adjusted life years (the number of years lost due to poor health, disability, or early death) in 2000 alone.
So what would I give my son? My answer that day was defeatist. I said I would give him Buddhism (not that it was mine to give). I said I would help him find the skills to reduce suffering. It was hardly an inspiring answer.
Traditionally, science as a discipline has discouraged activism. Scientists are expected to be objective – to explore, test, and report findings and conclusions based on facts. They are expected to put aside their opinions, emotions, hopes, and fears in the course of doing their research. Normally, when scientists speak out on a subject and advocate for action, they open themselves up to criticism and accusations of bias.
But now scientists have no choice, and so a growing number of us are speaking out about climate change. Many, myself included, feel that we have a moral responsibility to help the world understand that the climate is changing; that people are responsible for it; that 97 percent of scientists agree about this; and that the changes, on the whole, won’t be good for us.
The more I thought about climate change, the more I realized I had to do something other than publish my studies in scientific journals. I had to do more if I wanted to look my boys (I now have two) in the eyes and tell them I did all I could to slow climate change.
So I have also begun to speak out – as a scientist and as a concerned citizen. I’m running a climate change video contest for students in Washington state. I’ve written op-eds like this one. I’ve organized a group to explore the best way to teach climate change through video games.
And I have company in these efforts. Many scientists have begun to raise awareness about the dangers of climate change. When scientists, a relatively reserved group by nature, start to speak out in large numbers, it will be something that society can’t ignore.
I’m still working on teaching my sons some Buddhist practices to reduce suffering. But I’m also working to raise awareness about climate change in the hope that my boys – and boys and girls around the world – will have a future full of promise and opportunity. I’d like to thank that grandmother. Hopefully, the next time our paths cross, I will be able to give her a better answer to her question.
Joshua Lawler is an assistant professor of landscape ecology and conservation at the University of Washington and a co-founder of the group “More Than Scientists.”