Climate Scientists: They’re Just Like Us!

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from the Union of Concerned Scientists' new campaign

Well, not really—unless you spent a decade studying some of the most complex science in the world in college, graduate school and postdoctoral training, and know the ins and outs of a General Circulation Model. But as climate researchers struggle to cope with a changing media landscape, persistent skepticism and hostile attacks from some politicians, it’s worth getting to know just who these people are—especially if their research has the power to change the course of the world.

That’s the thinking behind a new campaign by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Cambridge-based green group that focuses on scientific integrity. Called Curious for Life, the new ad campaign introduces the public to a series of ordinary climate researchers and lets the scientists explain how childhood curiosity about the natural world propelled them into their field—and why that same curiosity informs their concern for the future of the planet. (Check out the ads here.)

The ads, while neat, aren’t likely to turn around any climate skeptics. But I hope they signal the start of a trend toward climate scientists becoming more involved with the public—and more engaged with the political debate over global warming. That’s not something most researchers want to do—though there are exceptions, like the pugnacious environmental biologist Stephen Schneider, whose most recent book is aptly titled Science as a Contact Sport. Especially for younger researchers, time spent engaging with the media or the public is time not spent publishing, and any scientist who appears in the press too often risks being diminished as a popularizer. Nor do many researchers—understandably—want to go through the public and private ordeals of demonized climate scientists like Penn State’s Michael Mann, who receives death threats in his email and who is currently part of a (highly politicized) investigation by Virginia’s attorney general. Who wouldn’t prefer to stay in the academy and out of the storm in this sort of environment?

But as I’ve written before, climate scientists can’t absent themselves from the climate debate—it’s just far too important. And the good news is that for the most part, scientists are still seen as relatively trusted figures—much more so than, I’m willing to bet, the media or politicians. It’s risky, but scientists should be part of this discussion, even if it sometimes seems like less of a discussion than a shouting match that will never, ever, ever end. The first step to doing that might be letting us get to known them.