This is a pivotal moment that presents unprecedented risks and challenges. The issues go well beyond an administration that refuses to address climate change. We’ve survived that before, although the risks of delay increase with every passing year. They even go beyond having climate change deniers in the White House and heading the federal agencies that should be leading the fight, terrible though that is. Recent attacks on climate science are part of a broader war on environmental science, science in general, and even truth itself (“alternative facts”). This is accompanied by personal attacks on scientists, reporters, and other guardians of truth. What’s even more dizzying is that those who proclaim falsehood after falsehood also accuse truth-tellers of spreading lies, creating genuine confusion about what and who to believe.
This blurring of truth and falsity is particularly galling to scientists, whose worldview is centered on truth because they know that anything else will fail, sooner or later. The reason that the United States got to the moon before the Soviet Union did is not that our scientists and engineers were smarter than theirs (the Soviets were in fact notoriously intelligent) but that Soviet scientists worked within a political system that suppressed freedom and truth. Propaganda can’t make rockets fly, and calling climate change “very expensive bulls***”1 won’t make the sea stop rising. As a sign at a recent protest in Boston read, “objective reality exists.”
How should the scientific community respond to these challenges? Some inside the community warn against the politicization of science. Perhaps they’ve spent too much time in the lab recently to notice that this happened some time ago. Others warn that protests by scientists will be characterized and discounted as self-serving. Most protests are, and there is nothing wrong with protecting one’s interests. Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize the value of science to society as a whole, and the case is not difficult to make. Even if one cares nothing about exploration, knowledge, or how the universe works, or about the many practical benefits science has produced (without which many of us would not be alive), it would be wise to remember that science and technology are the foundation of our economic strength and our military strength—two things which I believe are still supported across the political spectrum.
We should certainly not condemn scientists who don’t speak out in public. Those working within the federal government, for example, are in a very difficult position and may be able to do the most good by working quietly within the system. Any scientists taking a public stand may face personal or professional risks. Even death threats against climate scientists have become common. And many scientists are simply uncomfortable in the spotlight.
For WHRC and for me personally, however, the choice is clear. We have long supported the role of science in informing policy, and our voice has never been needed more than now. It may seem like a giant step backwards—maybe two—to have to defend not only climate science but science itself, but the stakes are enormous. We will continue to work within the system—as we always have—when opportunities present themselves. But, with help from our friends and supporters, I and others at WHRC will raise our voices in favor of science and evidence based decision-making. All of us who value these ideas need to make ourselves heard, and now is the moment.
Thanks as always for your interest and support.