Scientists agree that when the climate needs them, they'll speak up

Dr. John Abraham
Dr. John Abraham is an Associate Professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas. His area of expertise is heat transfer and fluid mechanics.
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Over the past year, there has been a decided shift in the concern among the general public and elected officials about the dangers of climate change. There is a deep split that parallels the political divide. Views on both sides have become entrenched, with the result being gridlock.

This has happened despite the increasing confidence among scientists that humans are causing global warming. In fact, approximately 97 percent of climate scientists are concerned about global warming. Despite this, many people feel that scientists are still debating among themselves whether global warming is occurring. In reality, that debate is virtually over.

It is important that people know how complicated this topic is. The climate is always changing, for many reasons. However, the basic facts really are well known.

All climate scientists know that human emissions have caused an increase in carbon dioxide. All scientists know that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. All scientists know that increases in carbon dioxide will cause the Earth to warm. No one seriously debates this issue anymore within the science community. The only place where these issues are still being debated is in the public.

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A remarkable division exists between science and the general public. Why is that? What can be done about it?

Recently, I worked with two colleagues to assemble a list of climate scientists who would be able and willing to field questions from the media or the public at large. Questions would be brought to the group and matched with an appropriate expert from our list. Then a connection between the scientist and the media would be made. Think of it as a matchmaker service.

The scientists are not naive. We know that moving forward will require tough choices and real challenges. It isn't clear what the best solutions are. It isn't clear whether the emphasis should be on adaptation or reduction of emissions. That is where the discussion needs to move. We need to leave this dead debate about whether humans are causing global warming and move on to ask what should be done about it.

We also realize that this is a political issue -- but it shouldn't be. Conservatives care about the environment; a number of conservative leaders have expressed real concern about global warming. It is important to depoliticize this issue so we can work together for real and effective solutions.

It is also important to note that this effort was not timed to the outcome of the elections. While it is no secret that many of the newly elected officials tend to be skeptical about climate change, this was not the genesis for the group. The group was formed because there is an undercurrent of frustration among scientists who are realizing that we have failed to communicate this issue to the public and that we've failed to engage the media. We have to do better. We have an ethical responsibility to do better.

We also know that the science needs to be defended. Much of the public gets its information from the Web and the blogosphere. Much of that information is incorrect. When we are asked to respond to misinformation, we will do that.

Scientists aren't good at this, and we generally don't want to spend our time in this way. We tend to stay in our ivory towers, a bit isolated from the outside world. But we have learned that the world needs us -- that we have an obligation to communicate the science so that the public and our officials can make good, informed decisions.


Dr. John Abraham is an associate professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas. His area of expertise is heat transfer and fluid mechanics.