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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How many scientists does it take to change a light bulb?

Q: How many scientists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: They won't change it.  It's not their problem.

I noted something in the news a few weeks ago.  Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann made a statement about the potential side effects of a vaccine for cervical cancer.  The response from the medical and public health communities was swift: the statement had no supporting evidence behind it.  Vaccines may carry some risks and cost money, but they save lives.  The benefits clearly outweigh the risks in most cases (although not all doctors agree whether teenage girls should get the vaccine for various reasons).  The rebuke got plenty of coverage, and the misinformation was effectively countered.

Contrast that with the blatantly false statement by Texas governor Rick Perry recently, that global warming is a hoax.  I heard it repeated over and over on the radio news briefs, with no countering view presented whatsoever.  Maybe some of that stems from the media's own reticence to acknowledge that there really isn't any debate at all in the world of science over the reality of human-induced climate change.  But no news outlet I follow, not even the "liberal" ones, reported on any response at all from the scientific community.  It's possible I missed it.  It's also possible that there was an outcry, but the media didn't report it.  Unfortunately, there is abundant evidence that the media tend to overplay any climate change deniers' claims compared to the overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue.  However, I really don't think that's what happened either, and an example of what makes me feel that way can be found in Hawaii in early November.

The Wildlife Society, the venerable professional society for wildlife ecologists and natural resource managers, is holding its annual meeting on the Big Island of Hawaii.  On their conference web site, the Society states that of all states, Hawaii "spotlights the most-pressing challenges that natural resource managers and conservationists face today—including the rapid spread of invasive species and the impacts of a changing climate."

The plight of the polar bear is probably the most widely publicized outcomes of global climate change.  Photo by Kathy Crane, NOAA Arctic Research Program.

Conference attendees won't be out solving those problems on the ground, they'll be attending paper sessions, networking, discussing the various topics of particular focus, and going on field trips.  The vast majority of them are going to have to fly to get there.  That adds up to a tremendous blast of carbon into the atmosphere, another blow to the goal of stabilizing emissions to try to limit the damage already underway.  That won't do much to help the highly endangered native Hawaiian ecosystems. The Wildlife Society meeting in Hawaii doesn't have a session on climate change. Presumably that will be discussed on the side.

Does The Wildlife Society really take climate science seriously?  One has to wonder.  Maybe this is why politicians and other leaders in our society go unchallenged far too often when they make blatantly ignorant statements about climate change.

Yellowstone fire. Photo by NOAA.

Unfortunately, this blind behavior isn't limited to wildlife biologists.  Virtually all of the scientific societies dealing with the biological sciences and even conservation biology hold national meetings and encourage their membership to attend.  Sometimes you can view presentations after the fact on the website, but no society to my knowledge allows members to attend remotely, or to view presentations in real time through skype, webinars, or other streaming technology.  Even the National Science Foundation expects the panelists charged with reviewing grant proposals for funding to fly in for a three-day meeting.  I found this out when I was invited to participate on a review panel.  When I asked if I could attend remotely, because the climate change science is very clear regarding the danger of carbon emissions, my email went unanswered.  Apparently not.

Individuals often do little better.  Most of us have changed our light bulbs, carry reusable grocery bags and coffee mugs, and occasionally carpool or use alternative transportation.  Very few of us have even begun to think about how we need to change the fundamental way we've begun to do business in the last few decades.  When I bring up climate change to another scientist, most often the answer is a shrug and a comment that the public is stupid, politicians are stupid, or we can't do anything about it anyway.  In short, it isn't our problem, we just do the science.

For people who profess to care about ecology and conservation, this is a travesty.  All of us need to recognize that we can either start planning how we are willing to be inconvenienced to limit the damage already in the works, or have far greater inconveniences forced on us without choice.  Not going to scientific meetings or networking in person is inconvenient.  There is a potential cost to a person's career.  But climate change and the horrendous damage that will follow from increased violence of storms, droughts, fires, and the fundamental chemical changes in the ocean and atmosphere will be far worse.

Wreckage of Hurricane Irene. Photo by Christopher Mardoff, FEMA

If we scientists, trained to evaluate evidence and respond accordingly, are unwilling or unable to take climate change seriously enough to alter how we do business, why should the reporter, the member of the general public, or the politician?

First, we have to own the problem, and be willing to recognize that we, too, are responsible both for the problem and its solution.  That is the necessary first step to being able to tackle the serious misinformation being presented by our society's leaders.  Changing a light bulb or restructuring a scientific society's annual meeting to encourage remote attendance won't save the planet all by themselves.  But if you walk your talk, people notice.  And when you also feel strongly enough about your science to call out those who would twist it to their own ends, people are much more likely to take you seriously. 

The Hawaiian honey creepers are counting on us.

'I'iwi, Vestiaria coccinea.  Photo by Jack Jeffry

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