I had the opportunity to attend one of the world’s largest geoscience conferences last week. It was the centennial celebration of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, which brought 27,000 geoscientists from around the world to Washington, D.C.
As an outsider might imagine, a conference filled with earth scientists is ripe with animated conversations about human-caused climate change. Indeed, there were several debates about the topic. Scientists presented on uncertainties, discussed both natural and human-caused forcing mechanisms, and quantified model errors.
What an outsider might not realize, however, is that none of these exchanges encompassed the fundamental idea of humans altering our climate system. Not one. For climate scientists, this concept is similar to gravity in that it is considered a fundamental concept on which all new geoscience research is based. While some politicians and vocal climate-change deniers are working hard to convince the public that scientists are still debating the cause of current climate change, scientists actually moved beyond this fundamental idea a long time ago. Human activities have contributed to nearly all of the observed global warming over the past several decades. Remove us from the equation, and our planet would actually be cooling.
My three main takeaways from the AGU Fall Meeting were as follows: 1) Climate change is progressing faster than previously anticipated, 2) we are barreling toward a catastrophic future for all life on this planet, which can still be mitigated, but only if we act soon, and 3) there is growing frustration among scientists that our science is not being properly used for policy and decision making, largely because our message is getting lost in a sea of misinformation.
I’ve attended several AGU meetings over the years, and there has always been a sense of frustration about vocal skeptics who have been at least partially successful in their attempts to confuse the public about climate change. At last week’s meeting, however, this frustration was at the forefront.
I witnessed many debates at the AGU Fall Meeting that involved how best to combat misinformation about our science. Is it our responsibility to call out every incorrect statement about climate change? Is it up to us to raise the topic at gatherings during the holiday season to family and friends? If we, the ones who know the most about the fate of our children’s future, do not speak up, who will? How will our own children and grandchildren remember us as they navigate this new climate system that will bring large-scale food shortages, water scarcity, more extreme weather, sea-level rise and mass migrations?
I have tremendous respect for scientists who have embraced the responsibility for public engagement on the topic of climate change. This is something that rarely counts toward professional advancement, and takes time away from activities that do, such as classroom teaching, writing peer-reviewed publications and presenting at professional conferences. Perhaps most importantly, the simple act of educating others about these fundamental scientific concepts may subject us to attacks by vocal climate-change deniers, both publicly and privately.
In response to the actual question at hand, about who is responsible for educating the public about climate change, today, I will accept the responsibility.
I encourage readers to learn about AGU’s position on climate change at https://bit.ly/2NvGuMx. This is a collective statement by the organization’s 60,000 geoscience members.
I also encourage readers to check out the official statement written by the American Meteorological Society at https://bit.ly/2aVj4Kl
Finally, the recently released second volume of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which identifies impacts and risks of climate change, can be found at https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/.
These resources were written by scientists, and are true representations of the current state of the science. These provide a remarkably accurate picture of what discussions take place when thousands of geoscience experts gather at a research conference to discuss climate change.
Someone may submit a response to my words, creating noise with the intent of simply injecting more confusion about this critical topic. When this happens, I encourage readers to look back at the resources listed above, which will help you identify truth that is too often lost in this sea of misinformation.
Janel Hanrahan is Department of Atmospheric Sciences associate professor and chairperson and The Climate Consensus director, at Northern Vermont University-Lyndon.