Nature 464, 1125 (22 April 2010) | doi:10.1038/4641125a; Published online 21 April 2010

Climate policy: role of scientists in public advocacy

Stephen H. Schneider1

  1. Department of Biology, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford, California 94305, USA

In his review of my book Science as a Contact Sport — a personal retrospective account of the development of climate science and policy covering 40 years — Roger Pielke Jr misrepresents my position on advocacy (Nature 464, 352–353; 2010).

Pielke fairly represents my decades-old argument that scientists should avoid policy prescriptions. But he omits my frequently stated context: policy advocacy by scientists is inappropriate in formal assessments, such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or of the US National Academy of Sciences.

As citizens, scientists may have personal-value positions on policy. But when involved in public advocacy, they must clearly lay out their world views and separate the more objective scientific issue of risk assessment from the value-laden risk-management part. Contrary to Pielke's implication, I am aware of this 'paradox'.

Understanding science does not in itself lead to effective policy. In fact, my book demonstrates that special interest or ideological chicanery is more responsible than scientific ignorance for blocking policy. However, as Pielke notes, I did say that if people better understood what is at stake, they'd be likely to make better risk-management decisions.

See also Climate policy: dissent over moral as well as factual issues.

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  1. #10324
    2010-05-02 01:13 PM
    Alice Friedemann said:

    I read Schneider's "Science as a Contact Sport" to find out what one of the scientists involved since the beginning of climate change had to say about the possibility of a future extinction event similar to the Permian as popularized by Peter Ward in ?Under a Green Sky? and ?The Medea Hypothesis? (and in Huey & Ward. 2005. ?Hypoxia, Global Warming, and Terrestrial Late Permian Extinctions? Science).

    But there is nothing whatsoever in this book about the potential of bringing on another Permian level extinction event by continuing to burn fossil fuels and creating a runaway greenhouse.

    Perhaps this is because several times Schneider says that he absolutely does not subscribe to climate change apocalyptic scenarios (p67, 116-117, 230). And he also makes the point many times that scientists must be careful about what they say so that the Denialists aren?t given any ammunition.

    I?d agree with him if there were a peer-reviewed journal article that calculated how much oil, natural gas, coal, and wood is left to burn, and how much methane might be released from permafrost melting and methane hydrates as a consequence in the future, and found it far less than what was released from volcanoes and the Siberian traps, concluding we aren?t capable of creating a runaway greenhouse because there isn?t enough fossil fuel left and/or enough methane trapped in the permafrost and methane hydrates to do this. But there is no such paper that I know of.

    Scientists studying the past extinctions, such as Michael Benton, are concerned. In 2007, Benton gave the Presidential Address to the Geologists? Association. The title was ?The end-Permian mass extinction events on land in Russia?. He concludes with:

    ?If the runaway greenhouse model is correct and explains perhaps the biggest crisis on Earth in the last 500 Ma, it is a model worth exploring further?Models for ancient extinction events affect the current debate about global warming and its possible medium-term consequences. Some scientists and politicians look to the sky for approaching asteroids that will wipe out humanity. Perhaps we should also consider how much global warming can be sustained and at what level the runaway greenhouse comes into play?.

    Scientists need to learn to communicate with the public in simple sound bites FAST ? the public is scientifically illiterate and that isn?t going to change soon (or ever in the United States, where right-wing evangelical Christians continue to dumb down science textbooks).

    If top climate scientists aren?t speaking out for political reasons, or because potential apocalyptic outcomes, however small the odds, gives the Denialists ammunition, then what hope is there of politicians and citizens getting alarmed enough to do anything?

    I think the public should be informed we could drive ourselves extinct, so they make climate change their top priority, vote ?denier? politicians out of office, and cope better with the hard times ahead knowing their sacrifices are for the good of humanity.

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