A Skeptic at Heart


President and Senior Scientist Dr. Eric A. Davidson

I confess that I was a skeptic once – not about climate change science, but about medical science.  When I was still in my 30s, my doctor noticed a faint heart murmur and told me to keep tabs on it.  Feeling young and invincible, I didn’t worry.  While seeing my doctor about a bad cold over a decade later, he noted that the murmur was louder and he ordered tests.  I recovered from the cold, took the tests, and still didn’t worry, because I was feeling great.  After coming home from a cross-country skiing trip I was in for the shock of a very inconvenient truth.  The tests showed a leaky mitral valve for which the only treatment is open heart surgery.  I immediately went into denial.  I had just finished a skiing trip, I wasn’t yet 50, and I sure wasn’t going to let someone rip open my chest!  My wife convinced me to get a second opinion, and we shopped for a cardiologist with an excellent reputation.  The results and advice were the same.  I then did my own research, reading through the jargon of an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, where it was clear that people with my mitral valve diagnosis usually died within 5 years if they didn’t have corrective surgery.  Finally, my denial eroded away, I sucked it up, and I checked myself into the hospital.  The heart surgeon (whose credentials we also checked out carefully) stopped my heart, trimmed the extra flap that was preventing the valve from closing properly, revived my heart, and sewed me back up.

Six years later I look back on that traumatic episode with three lessons learned: (1) denial is the easy way out; (2) it is very hard to do the right thing; and (3) expert medical opinion and medical care allowed me to overcome the denial and feel confident that I was taking the right course of action.

Skepticism and denial are still on my mind.  I recently had the honor to become the CEO of the Woods Hole Research Center, where we study forests, soils, and water, including how they relate to the causes and consequences of climate change.  I hope to increase our efforts in communication and outreach, because we face a world that is disturbingly full of skeptics who are in denial of our science.  This year alone, the US House of Representatives has twice tried to defund the US contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as if ignoring the science would make the problem and the laws of physics go away.

I can empathize with the skepticism and denial.  I know from personal experience that it is by far the easiest response to inconvenient truths.  We might feel pretty good on a beautiful day, but human-induced climate change is undermining the heart of what makes our economy tick, including agriculture, forestry, water supply, and fisheries.  Fortunately for me six years ago, there was not a loud chorus of naysayers trying to convince me that the cardiologists were still debating the cause or cure of my heart problem.  I made sure that I went to mainstream, well respected doctors.  Their resolve and the credibility of their profession were never in doubt.  Unfortunately, the current strong scientific consensus about climate change and the credibility of the climate scientists are being called into question by an effective media campaign of special interest groups who stand to gain from delaying needed action.

My non-scientists friends, family, and neighbors generally give me two reasons for their skepticism.  First, while many of them, especially the old timers, have noticed that it is warmer now than in the 1960s and 1970s, and that we are having a lot of strange weather and more extreme storms, they ask if this couldn’t just be natural variation.  That topic was, indeed, the subject of scientific debate back in the 1980s and early 1990s, but since then, scientists have concluded that the rapid rate of change during the last 40 years cannot be explained by natural variation.  The natural warming that brought the earth out of the last ice age occurred at a rate of about two degrees Fahrenheit per thousand years, but the current human-caused warming is about ten times faster — about two degrees Fahrenheit in only one hundred years.  We can measure changes in the strength of the sun, the effects of volcanoes, and a host of other proposed explanations, but none of them can account for the magnitude and speed of recent climate change.  On the other hand, we understand well the laws of physics that govern how greenhouse gases in the atmosphere cause the earth to warm.  Just as a windshield traps the suns energy inside a parked car, the gases that we emit into the air by burning coal and oil trap the sun’s energy near the earth, which not only makes it warmer, but also accelerates storm-generating movement of energy, wind, and water across the oceans and land.

Medical science unequivocally measured how much blood was leaking through my heart valve, used biology and physics to explain why, documented my poor chances of survival if I did nothing, and offered good technologies and procedures to fix it.  Similarly, earth science has unequivocally measured how much the earth is warming, has explained its human cause using well known and uncontroversial laws of physics, has documented the biological and economic impacts of climate change, and can point to the steps needed to avert further turmoil and suffering.

None of this is debated at the mainstream scientific meetings that I attend.  I’m not talking about meetings of environmental activists, but rather meetings of geophysicists, meteorologists, biogeochemists, atmospheric chemists, agronomists, foresters, hydrologists, etc.  Our discussions and research focus on why the warming is happening faster than we had expected even just 5 years ago, and how the earth’s life support systems are or are not adjusting, including how economics and human health will be affected.  Clear consensus statements that these mainstream scientific societies have issued demonstrate that, despite the impressions to the contrary portrayed in the popular press, scientists are nearly unanimous about the seriousness and causes of climate change.  If you don’t like the first opinion, from the National Academies of Science, for example, then go for a second opinion from the American Geophysical Union, a third from the American Meteorological Society, or a fourth from the Agronomy Society of America*.  Like my multiple cardiologists and heart surgeons, these experts agree on the diagnosis of climate change.

The second comment that my friends pass on to me from what they hear in the media is that we scientists are a self-serving bunch who, like Chicken Little, squawk about nothing in order to get more research money for ourselves.  Most polls show that scientists are generally still regarded in high esteem.  Nevertheless, it is worrisome that science is being viewed by some as just another interest group looking out for its own self interests.  Most scientists picked their career paths not for money, but for the love of the pursuit of knowledge, both for its own sake and for providing a benefit to humanity.  Even as the CEO of my institute, I earn less than 1% of the reported eight figure compensation packages of most big oil and coal company CEOs.  I am not complaining.  I knew that a career in science would not make me a multi-millionaire, my family’s needs are met comfortably enough, and I love my work because I believe in science making an essential contribution to society.  I mention the salary contrast only to demonstrate how silly it is to focus on accusations of abusive self-interest by scientists (the classical “attack the messenger” tactic), when the media campaign paid for by the coal and oil industry to cast doubt on our science is clearly designed to keep their product in demand and their compensation packages 100 times more handsome than ours.  Nor is money the only issue.  Before my colleagues and I can publish a paper on our scientific findings, we have to convince a panel of other scientists that our findings are sufficiently novel and rigorously supported by data to justify publication.  In contrast, some of the coal and oil companies simply pay for their own reports and media blitzes without a scientific peer review.  One of the challenges of our new communication and outreach efforts will be to help the public identify genuine mainstream expert scientific opinion from the clever attempts to deny it.

Please notice my qualifier “some” when referring to obfuscation by big coal and oil companies.  Some companies have taken more responsible positions, and leaders of other business sectors have also moved beyond denial and are seeking genuine expert opinion on how climate change is affecting the biological underpinnings of a healthy economy over the long-term.  You can bet that the insurance companies are seeking the best mainstream climate experts to advise them on the very real increased risk exposure that they face with rising sea level and increased storminess.  I hear business people saying that they just want a level playing field, and they can then play by whatever rules are needed to avoid further climate change.  I would welcome the opportunity to partner with other CEOs, whether from the corporate world, the non-profit world, or any other world to figure out what in the world would work to move away from fossil fuels and deforestation and to a sustainable basis for biological and economic prosperity.

When I was coming to grips with my heart problem, I went to the best cardiologists and surgeons that I could find.  Patient Earth and her inhabitants also have excellent and dedicated scientific experts to diagnose and treat the Earth’s climatic fever.  Taking this expert advice is not easy – I know; but as was the case for my elective heart surgery, the alternative is much worse.

*position statements of mainstream US professional scientific societies:

National Academy of Sciences: http://www7.nationalacademies.org/ocga/testimony/Climate_Change_Evidence_and_Future_Projections.asp#TopOfPage

Americal Geophysical Union: http://www.agu.org/sci_pol/positions/climate_change2008.shtml

American Meteorological Society: http://www.ametsoc.org/policy/2007climatechange.html

Agronomy Society of America: https://www.agronomy.org/files/science-policy/asa-cssa-sssa-climate-change-policy-statement.pdf