Earth Scientists Discover Advocacy, Activism, Profanity, and Getting Arrested

The state of the universe.
Dec. 7 2012 11:46 AM

Scientists Ask Blunt Question on Everyone’s Mind

Why Earth and atmospheric scientists are swearing up a storm and getting arrested.

(Continued from Page 1)

Box is a prime example. A veteran Arctic researcher, Box was arrested alongside more than 1,000 others in 2011 outside the White House while protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico for export, thus facilitating the liberation of a vast quantity of climate-warming and ice-sheet-disintegrating carbon. “Taking that stand was arguably the most important thing I’ve done,” he told me, and that includes a highly regarded body of work on Greenland ice-sheet dynamics. “I’ve taken a number of perceived political risks. The groupthink was, ‘You’re wasting your time, you’re risking your career,’ ” he said. Such actions might one day keep him from membership in the National Academies of Science, he mused aloud, but he didn’t seem too concerned. As he sees it, he can pursue rigorous science and be an engaged, concerned citizen at the same time. “I have a 14-month-old daughter,” he explained simply.

The bulk of Werner’s talk, as it turned out, was not profane or prophetic but was a fairly technical discussion of a “preliminary agent-based numerical model” of “coupled human-environmental systems.” He described a computer model he is building of the complex two-way interaction between people and the environment, including how we respond to signals such as environmental degradation, using the same techniques he employs to simulate the dynamics of natural systems such as permafrost, glaciers, and coastal landscapes. These tools, he argued, can lead to better decision-making. Echoing Anderson and Bows, he claimed it as a legitimate part of a physical scientist’s domain. “It’s really a geophysics problem,” he said. “It’s not something that we can just leave to the social scientists or the humanities.”

Active resistance by concerned groups of citizens, analogous to the anti-slavery and civil rights movements of the past, is one of the features of the planetary system that plays an important role in his model. If you think that we should take a much longer view when making decisions about the health of the “coupled human-environmental system”—that is to say, if you’re interested in averting the scenario in which the Earth is f**ked—then, Werner’s model implied, resistance is the best and probably only hope. Every other element—environmental regulation, even science—is too embedded in the dominant economic system.

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I asked Werner what he sees as scientists’ role in contributing to this kind of resistance, the kind of direct action taken by researchers like Hansen and Box. Werner views his own advocacy as separate from his scientific work. “To some extent, [science is] a job, and a job I really like, and I have the good fortune and privilege to have,” he told me. “In my other life, I am an activist, but there’s a line. Both sides inform the other. And I think that that is healthy. But when I’m doing geophysics, I’m a geophysicist. When I’m doing activism, I’m an activist.”

Werner agreed that more and more scientists are now engaging in advocacy than in the past. “Even if you say, ‘OK, I’m not going to advocate anything. I am simply going to make sure that I am going to produce results which are useful and available to a broad range of people,’ that’s a decision that researchers have to make.” This is not just an academic question. Anderson and Bows’ work, for instance, suggests that economic growth in the short term is simply incompatible with the (nonbinding) commitments made by most U.N. member states to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This, of course, is not a message that is making any headway with the leaders of those countries. “The elephant in the room sits undisturbed while collective acquiescence and cognitive dissonance trample all who dare to ask difficult questions,” Anderson and Bows write. Getting relevant information into the hands of those more likely to ask those questions is, Werner said, part of his responsibility as a scientist.

Box agrees and is launching a new initiative called the Dark Snow Project, which aims to conduct the first crowdsourced scientific expedition to the Arctic, measuring how soot from North American wildfires might be accelerating Greenland’s ice melt. He and his colleagues plan to make their results publically accessible via video and other online tools, and he sees the project eventually growing into an organization that does rapid-response field science in the public interest.

As for the big question—is Earth f**ked?—Werner announced in his talk that he has done some preliminary runs of his model. At this point I could sense the audience lean forward collectively on their seats. First he simulated the global economy proceeding into the future without the drag of environmental management decisions. “What happens is not too surprising,” he told us evenly. “Basically the economy fast chews up the environmental resources, depletes those reservoirs, resulting in a significant amount of environmental damage.”

Then he factored in some environmental management, presumably of our standard, EPA cost-benefit-analysis-driven variety, and found that “it delays the environmental damage but it doesn’t prevent it.”

That’s not too surprising either. (But it also implies we’re eventually, definitely f**ked.) Still, there’s a choose-your-own-adventure element to the story that has yet to play out. Resistance, Werner argued, is the wild card that can force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. Werner hasn’t completed that part of his model, so we’ll have to wait to find out what happens. But during the Q-and-A session, he conceded that “even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”

In other words, according to at least one expert, maybe the Earth is not quite f**ked yet after all. But the ultimate outcome may depend on how much, and how many, scientists choose to wade into the fray.

Jonathan Mingle is currently at work on a book about black carbon pollution.

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