The young girl turns to her grandfather: “Granddad, why didn’t you speak up about climate change when you knew it was such a big problem?” According to Michael Brooks writing in the Guardian (Scientists finally get angry about indifference to climate change, http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/jul/05/scienceofclimatechange-climate-change?INTCMP=SRCH), it’s fear of such a conversation that is driving a handful of climate scientists to become climate change activists. He argues that more scientists should become activists to protest about inaction on climate change. But why are so few scientists speaking up about what may be a very serious threat to human life on earth?
Brooks suggests this is a result of the “offer advice only if asked” attitude that scientists have adopted but I believe there are other reasons. Individuals may feel powerless and so although one person worries about climate change they may feel unable to tackle such a big issue, especially when they see how little politicians are doing. Academic scientists in universities are very busy. They have to excel both as teachers and researchers as well as coping with large amounts of paperwork. They may simply have no space left for activism especially when promotions are so dependent on the number and quality of papers published and their grant income. Fear may be another factor. The UEA “Climategate” affair will have made many people very wary. Also anyone who has ventured in to the blogosphere with ideas about climate change only to receive torrents of abuse will think twice about putting their head above the parapet again.
It is, however, possible to get scientists to become activists as last year’s “Science is Vital” campaign showed ( see http://scienceisvital.org.uk/), but they need to be sufficiently aroused. When faced with potentially swingeing cuts to funding, scientists in the UK backed this campaign with more than 35000 signatures. Up to 2000 people also turned out on a Saturday afternoon for a demonstration in London. The key to this activism was a clearly focussed issue directly affecting individuals and a slick organisation taking full advantage of modern media.
But let’s return to the issue of climate change. Here, scientists, especially those with expertise in climate change, must engage and I don’t believe it is enough to suggest, as Brooks does, that scientists should “take their fighting spirit out of the laboratory and onto the streets”. There has to be a focus to get the unwilling or wary to speak up, as “Science is Vital” showed. For climate change, that focus could be the Royal Society. They have produced excellent briefing papers on climate change and the need for action but they could do more. The new president, Paul Nurse, has nailed his colours to the mast with his Horizon documentary. The Royal Society, with its key climate scientists, could then be leading the campaign for action about climate change. If they were to lead then I believe many concerned scientists would follow. Surely we must do something?