Science Policy & Funding Editors' Vox

Climate Scientists as Activists

The pursuit of global political solutions to climate change is not for the faint of heart—but it is a matter of civic responsibility.


Just as citizens are increasingly participating in the scientific process through numerous citizen science programs, scientists are increasingly exercising their rights as citizens in the political process. This trend is most notable in the effort to develop the political will to prevent climate change. Since climate change is a global problem arising from the actions of almost everyone, global political solutions are required to prevent it.

A large number of AGU members, motivated by the energy use implications of their climate research, are actively advocating local, state, national and international commitments to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases that their science has concluded is driving climate change. Climate scientists are not only speaking to the public about the science of climate change, but also are calling for policies designed to reduce use of fossil fuel, the primary anthropogenic source of greenhouse gas emissions.

For example, well known climate scientists James Hansen and Katharine Hayhoe serve on the Board of Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), which exists “to create the political will for climate solutions by enabling individual breakthroughs in the exercise of personal and political power.” They and numerous other AGU members (including me) volunteer with CCL to advocate a steadily increasing national revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend with border adjustments to protect trade and induce other nations to put a price on fossil carbon too.  To build the political will for this solution, we give public presentations on both climate science and climate change solutions, give radio and television interviews, write blogs, columns and letters in various media, and meet with members of the U.S. Congress.

Such advocacy is not for the faint of heart. The integrity of climate scientists in general has been questioned, and some have even received death threats. As Stephen Schneider articulated so well in his 2009 book, climate science is a full contact sport.

Yet the effort of the 34,000 CCL members and members of other complementary organizations such as AGU has led to public acknowledgment of the human role in climate change and the importance of preventing it amongst both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. A bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus has been established in the House of Representatives, and a House Resolution declaring such has 13 Republican sponsors. More importantly, the Paris Climate Conference last December led to pledges from almost all nations to substantially reduce greenhouse has emissions.

As an Editor-in-Chief for an AGU journal, I am particularly mindful of the need to distinguish between science and policy.  Although I am sufficiently convinced of the human role in climate change to advocate policy, as an Editor I take care to apply the same formal review process to all manuscripts, focusing on the evidence that supports the science.

While some might be concerned about potential loss of scientific objectivity from such advocacy, such concerns are only relevant before the major science issues have been resolved. While important details necessary for adaptation remain, it is time to make informed decisions about how to most effectively and economically limit the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. AGU scientists can play important roles as citizens of their respective countries.

—Steve Ghan, Editor-in-Chief,  Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres; email: [email protected]

  • ItsMyTurnNow

    The editor-in-chief writes: “While some might be concerned about potential loss of scientific objectivity from such advocacy, such concerns are only relevant before the major science issues have been resolved.”

    While the existence of an enhanced GHE has been has been settled, the IPCC’s 70% confidence interval of 1.5-4.5 K for a doubling of CO2 clearly demonstrates that the major science issues haven’t been resolved. There are thousands of knowledgable scientists capable of advocating for a climate science policy appropriate for an ECS of 2, 3, or 4 K, there are only a handful of journal editors capable of ensuring that all JGR:A papers meet the highest scientific standards.

    What do you mean when you say: “focusing on the evidence that supports ‘the science'”. What “science”? Evidence is evidence, whether or not it supports any particular position. Science is derived from evidence; evidence isn’t selected to support science. Stephen Schneider tells us that that evidence must be presented with all of the if, ands, buts and caveats; not slanted to support a particular position.

    In addition to saying that science is a “full-contact sport”, Schneider also said that policy advocacy requires telling scary stories, making over-simplified dramatic statements, and hiding doubts. It must be very difficult switching from editor to policy advocate

  • Morbeau

    Are you an anti-advocacy advocate, or an anti-science advocacy advocate?

  • Morbeau

    So you prefer the version of reality provided by political organizations to that of scientists. Do you understand the difference between political advocacy and science advocacy?

    • David Wojick

      That the attribution problem has not been solved and sensitivity may well be low are facts about the science. It is the politicization of the scientists that is the problem.

      • Morbeau

        So Cato is a “Science” organization? You’ll have to do better than that if you want anyone to take you seriously. The main part of attribution is not in doubt, and whining about sensitivity is not an argument you can win. Which is why organizations like Cato try to direct the conversation to fake issues like Advocacy!, where there’s lots of BS and no science.

  • nidan841g

    So, the climate scientists, with their $70k/yr salaries, are the bad guys, engaged in a global conspiracy, and the oil conglomerates, with their billion dollar profit margins, are the good guys. Trust the oil companies, they are looking out for us.

    Here’s a climate science bet: Every month, If the latest GISS monthly anomaly is > 0, you pay me $50. If it is < 0, I pay you $100. Any takers? Do you know how many years it has been since the monthly anomaly was < 0? I'd be happy to take bets based on arctic sea ice September minimum or sea level rise as well.

    • Gordon Lehman

      GISS mid stratosphere next month? You’re on.

  • As a geologist, now retired, and a previous employee of the cement industry, as well as several oil/gas companies, I look with profound astonishment at what we have wrought. The rate of climate change, largely due to our incessant quest for fossil fuel energy, is accelerating and, as with some other societal problems, population control, for example, many of us dilly dally in a quagmire of confusion and indecision. I believe as geoscientists we have a well-defined moral responsibility, call it an urgent moral imperative, to stand before our fellow citizens and advocate solutions that will eventually reduce the rate of climate change acceleration before it becomes too late and the consequences turn our industrial civilization into a debilitating form of chaos or collapse. I strongly support the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and their advocacy of legislation for a carbon-fee-and-dividend, with the collected monies returned to the citizens. This will stimulate the development of non-carbon-based energy, even perhaps that from deep geothermal sources.

    • Morbeau

      Well said.

    • Gordon Lehman

      Just like Stephen Gahn you are rationalizing your beliefs. This is the opposite of science.

  • John Moore

    Even if the scientific conclusions are correct, the scientists usually lack the knowledge and expertise to anticipate the consequences of their policy advocacy. Energy is at the core of the world economy which means it is central to survival and, for the better off, standard of living. Expertise in climate dynamics doesn’t provide expertise in societal feedbacks.

  • John Catley

    Climate scientists would be better employed chasing down the reasons for the abject failure of their predictions rather than trying to bamboozle others into accepting them as proven.

  • Paul Matthews

    “The integrity of climate scientists in general has been questioned”.

    You don’t seem to realise that one of the reasons their integrity as scientists has been questioned is precisely because they indulge in this sort of political activism.

    • Steven Ghan

      Are physicians’ integrity questioned because they provide treatment as well as diagnosis?

      • Jiri Moudry

        In high mountains you can get an Acute Mountain Sickness. Then you need an expensive emergency evacuation by a helicopter. Would you trust a diagnosis by a doctor who gets a cut from the helicopter company?

        • Steven Ghan

          You are describing a conflict of interest, which is a problem for our medical system.
          In science, the agency program managers try very hard to prevent conflict of interest. Proposal reviews are blind, proposals are reviewed by at least three reviewers, and reviewers are disqualified if they are conflicted. Publications are required to state funding sources. The system isn’t perfect, but conflicts rarely make it through.

          • Nabil Swedan

            An activist has inherit conflict of interest. He or she cannot be fair reviewers. true scientists resort to convincing through logic and mathematics and not through activism. Climate is a science and can be only addressed as such.

            • Morbeau

              Yes, and when there’s a US political party whose basic climate policy is to attack scientists and science? Where’s the conflict there?

    • Morbeau

      What’s wrong with people with a good understanding of an issue advocating for better knowledge on the part of the public? Who else could or should be doing this? Anthony Watts?

      • Gordon Lehman

        The problem is they have no better knowledge to advocate and they insulate their faulty science from criticism in the interest of advocacy.

        • Morbeau

          No, the “problem” appears to be people making outlandish claims because they don’t understand how science works. Scientists clearly do have better knowledge about their fields than other people. That doesn’t make them right – it makes them worth taking seriously.

          What faulty science are you talking about? Are you trying to suggest that because some science is controversial or even wrong, we should ignore all science? Like Fox News, you seem to be arguing that advertising and made-up claims are equal to demonstrated facts.

  • Jiri Moudry

    “..such concerns are only relevant before the major science issues have been resolved.” Please publish a list of major science issues that have been resolved beyond reasonable doubt.

    • Steven Ghan

      “beyond reasonable doubt” are your words, not mine. There will always be doubters. But aren’t you willing to pay for fire insurance even though you doubt your house will burn? My confidence that global warming is driven by mostly by fossil fuel combustion is far greater than my confidence that my house will burn.

      • Jiri Moudry

        These are not my words. This is a legal definition of a standard, required for criminal cases. You present your case as a criminal case.

      • Jiri Moudry

        Steven, do you believe that the policy of your journal should be driven by your personal confidence?

      • Gordon Lehman

        “That is a personal problem. My confidence that global warming is driven by mostly by fossil fuel combustion is far greater than my confidence that my house will burn.”
        That is a personal problem. That is your belief. That is what you advocate.
        Now, if you can only explain on what evidence you base this confidence?
        You are going to say, “What? The glaciers are melting, there are witches in the crazy weather, the temperature has risen.”
        All of this has happened many times before…

        • Morbeau

          You’re not making much of a case for your point of view here. This whole idea that “climate has changed before” is nonsense, endlessly repeated by people who are content to let others do their thinking for them.

          How do you know climate has changed in the past? Climate scientists told you. But now that they’re telling us things we don’t like, “It’s all a crock! Those scientists have stopped being scientists!” But that’s ok, maybe the moral high ground will keep you above rising sea levels.

          • M​a​r​k S​h​o​r​e

            I always liked the jiu-jitsu strategy occasionally attempted by some climate science deniers. I can picture the synapses intermittently sparking while they slowly work out the perfect rebuttal to [insert any of hundreds of climate change-related facts or arguments here].

            “But [insert place here] was covered by a mile* of ice 20,000 years ago. Explain that, scientists. What happened? Did mammoths start driving cars?”

            * It’s usually a mile. Once it was five kilometers.

            • Morbeau

              Really furry cars!

              I imagine them in sombre but tastefully fashioned robes, gathered around a smelly kerosene heater for

              The Recitation of the Memes:

              Priest: “CO2 levels always precede warming”

              Congregation: “Al Gore!”

              Priest: “Mann was wrong!”

              Congregation: “Al Gore!”

              Priest: “2016 minus 1997 equals 20!”

              Congregation: “Al Gore!”

              Priest: “Al Gore is Fat”!

              Congregation: “Al Gore!” “Al Gore!” “Al Gore is Fat”!

              Honestly, this stuff never gets old.

          • Gordon Lehman

            We do not know of past climates from climate scientists. Climate science is new and numeric and struggles with three day forecasts, much less paleoclimate. Their models fail because they do not properly understand how CO2 works in the atmosphere.

            But the faithful don’t care. Like you, they “know” this time is different. They ignore all the evidence that the only historic correlation between CO2 and temperature in the Neogene is that it follows temperature like a poodle on a leash.