How Scientists Are Moving Climate Change Conversation Forward
Last January, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times—If You See Something, Say Something—about my feelings of duty as a climate scientist to engage with the public. I hoped it would help other scientists feel more comfortable speaking out to the public about the dangers of a world warmed by human emissions.
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Little did I know that exactly two months later, the largest scientific organization in the world and publisher of the leading academic journal Science would launch an initiative aimed at doing just that—move the conversation forward by telling Americans “What We Know.” It boils down to three main points—97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is here and now, that this means we risk abrupt and irreversible changes to the climate, and the sooner we act, the lower the costs and risks we face.
The focus of this initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is to help Americans understand climate change, but also to inform us of some of the less probable but more painful risks we face by our continued inaction. By consulting with economists, the report was able to address the fact that the sooner we take action, the lower the cost and the less risk we face.
That last point is one that warrants a little unpacking. While climate contrarians have suggested for the past few decades that we take a “wait and see” approach, legitimate scientists work hard to tease out the influence of climate change on the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events.
This detective work of pinning down exact contributions of humans is known as attribution, as in “exactly how much climate change can we attribute to humans?” Originally this question was very important, as its answer determined if mankind was responsible for warming. Thanks to decades of research, we know that humans are to blame with the same certainty that smoking and cancer are linked. Attribution studies continue though, as some scientists seek to pin down attribution of specific extreme weather events. The thinking, I suppose, is that only if we can say a particular event was 100 percent caused by climate change, can we meaningfully talk about the impact that climate change is having on extreme events. I am unconvinced, however, that this is an especially useful way of looking at how climate change is impacting weather extremes. It is a bit like trying to prove that a particular home run hit by a baseball player on steroids was due to the steroids. It’s asking the wrong question.
And this latest report shows us that the contrarian “wait and see” is not a prudent course of action, and that we don’t have time to work out exactly how much more dangerous and destructive certain types of extreme events (heat waves, prolonged drought, and superstorms) are being made by our escalating CO2 emissions. You don’t wait to see if the fire will spread through the whole building to attempt to extinguish the flame. You don’t wait until after you get into a car accident to buy insurance. And you don’t wait until you’re critically ill to go to the doctor. So why would you wait for increasingly damaging climate changes to start reducing emissions?
Which brings us to the point: we need to get serious about dealing with this crisis or we risk increasingly damaging and potentially irreversible climate change impacts. The excessive equivocation all too characteristic of scientific discourse (the phenomenon that Naomi Oreskes refers to as “erring on the side of least drama”), is often inappropriately leveraged as a justification for inaction by those opposed to reducing fossil fuel usage. Nuanced language is standard and necessary in academia, but just doesn’t translate when talking to the public. As I state in the epilogue of my book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars:
Despite the battle scars I’ve suffered from having served on the front lines in the climate wars—and they are numerous—I remain convinced that there is nothing more noble than striving to communicate, in terms that are simultaneously accurate and accessible, the societal implications of our scientific knowledge.
So because my “see something say something” advice seems to have been heeded, let me try on a new meme: If you know it, show it. As scientists, we need to stop dancing around the point and use plain English in describing what we do know. Rather than confusing the public with obscure and often misleading science-speak, we must explain, in plain terms, the nature of what we do know: That we face great peril if we do nothing to avert the climate change crisis.
Any sober assessment of the problem demonstrates that the costs of inaction will greatly outweigh the cost of action, and the sooner we start, the easier it will be to transition to a clean energy economy. Precisely what policy measures we should pursue to encourage that transition is a worthy matter of debate. But we cannot, and should not, continue to pretend that inaction is a viable strategy.
Since we know that climate change poses a real threat to us, what are we going to do about it? Do we want to be a leader in the transition to a clean energy economy, much as it was a leader in fossil fuel energy revolution of the 1800s? Or do we want to take the “wait and see” approach, knowing that doing so not only risks our climate, but also our country's economic position in the race to a future powered by clean energy? It really is that stark a decision that we face. Let’s make the right choice.
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Summer has finally arrived in the northern reaches of Canada and Alaska, liberating hundreds of thousands of northern stream fish from their wintering habitats.
A Good News Story?<p>On the surface, the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/fwb.13569" target="_blank">results from our study</a> appear to provide a "good news" story. Warming temperatures were linked to higher numbers of fish, more species overall and, therefore, potentially more fishing opportunities for northerners.</p><p>Initially, we were surprised to learn that warming was increasing the distribution of cold-adapted fish. We reasoned that modest amounts of warming could lead to benefits such as increased food and winter habitat availability without reaching stressful levels for many species.</p>
Photo of Arctic grayling (left) and Dolly Varden trout (right). Alyssa Murdoch / Lilian Tran / Nunavik Research Centre and Tracey Loewen / Fisheries and Oceans Canada<p>Yet, not all fish species fared equally well. Ecologically unique northern species — those that have evolved in colder, more nutrient-poor environments, such as Arctic grayling and Dolly Varden trout — were showing declines with warming.</p>
Fish Strandings and Buried Eggs<p>Recent news headlines run the gamut for Pacific salmon — from their increased escapades <a href="https://nunatsiaq.com/stories/article/more-pacific-salmon-showing-up-in-western-arctic-waters/" target="_blank">into the Arctic</a> to <a href="https://www.juneauempire.com/news/warm-waters-across-alaska-cause-salmon-die-offs/" target="_blank">massive pre-spawning die-offs</a> in central Alaska. Similarly, results from our study revealed different outcomes for fish depending on local climatic conditions, including Pacific salmon.</p><p>We found that warmer spring and fall temperatures may be helping juvenile salmon by providing a longer and more plentiful growing season, and by supporting early egg development in northern regions that were previously too cold for survival.</p><p>In contrast, salmon declined in regions that were experiencing wetter fall conditions, pointing to an increased risk of flooding and sedimentation that could bury or dislodge incubating eggs.</p>
Headwaters of the Wind River within the largely intact Peel River watershed in northern Canada. Don Reid / Wildlife Conservation Society Canada / Author provided<p>Interestingly, we found that certain climatic combinations, such as warmer summer water temperatures with decreased summer rainfall, were important in determining where Pacific salmon could survive. Summer warming in drier watersheds led to declines, suggesting that lowered streamflows may have increased the risk of fish becoming stranded in subpar habitats that were too warm and crowded.</p>
The Fate of Northern Fisheries<p>The promise of a warmer and more accessible Arctic has attracted mounting interest in new economic opportunities, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2019.103637" target="_blank">including fisheries</a>. As warming rates at higher latitudes are already <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank">two to three times global levels</a>, it seems probable that northern biodiversity will experience dramatic shifts in the coming decades.</p><p>Despite the many unknowns surrounding the future of Pacific salmon, many fisheries are currently <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/03632415.2017.1374251" target="_blank">thriving following warmer and more productive northern oceans</a>, and some <a href="https://doi.org/10.14430/arctic68876" target="_blank">Arctic Indigenous communities are developing new salmon fisheries</a>.</p><p>As warming continues, the commercial salmon fishing industry is poised to expand northwards, but its success will largely depend on extenuating factors such as <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060023067" target="_blank">changes to marine habitat and food sources</a> and <a href="https://www.yukon-news.com/news/promising-chinook-salmon-run-failed-to-materialize-in-the-yukon-river-panel-hears/" target="_blank">how many fish are caught during the freshwater stages of their journey</a>.</p><p>Even with the potential for increased northern biodiversity, it is important to recognize that some northern communities may be unable to adapt or may <a href="https://thenarwhal.ca/searching-for-the-yukon-rivers-missing-chinook/" target="_blank">lose individual species that are associated with important cultural values</a>.</p>
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“You’ve Been Exposed”<p>After the case interview, contact tracers will get to work calling the folks who may have been exposed to the coronavirus by the person who tested positive.</p><p>"We give them recommendations about quarantining or isolating, getting tested, and what to do if they become sick. If they're not already sick, we still want them to self-quarantine so that they don't spread the disease to anyone else if they were to become sick," said Labus.</p><p>Generally, the contact tracer won't ask for additional contacts unless they happen to call someone who is sick or has a confirmed case of the virus. They will help ensure the contact has the resources they need to isolate themselves, if necessary. The contact tracer may continue to stay in touch with that person over the next 14 days.</p><p>"We follow the percentage of people that were contacts, then converted into being actual cases of the virus. It's an important marker to help us understand what kind of transmission happens in our community and how to control the virus," said Gullett.</p>
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