Why We Should Care What Climate Scientists Think

As a scientist at the Paris agreement discussions, I hoped to see a fruitful collision of the climate scientist and climate activist. I expected strong words regarding science and broader social change.

Scientists watch as ship cuts through multiyear ice, July 6, 2014. Photo by NASA/Kathryn Hansen

Outside Paris, in the halls of the climate change negotiations in Le Bourget, there was a profound lack of connection between the aspirations of the Paris Agreement negotiators and those of activists from across the world.

I listened as the U.N. negotiators presented, with fanfare, the successful results of their grand technocratic exercise. They ignored the advice of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and offered carbon emission reductions that are insufficient to keep global warming below 2 degrees C and completely miss the 1.5 degree C warming target that small, developing island states and Arctic communities need to protect their survival from rising seas, earlier seasonal sea ice retreat, and changing terrestrial ecosystems.

Activists asked questions that nation-states dared not.

Acknowledging its failure, the Paris Agreement promised that nations would revisit this exercise every five years, creating more aggressive carbon-reduction targets with each round. This provision was required because, in an effort to avoid rejection by a Republican-controlled Congress,  U.S. negotiators pushed for the document to be nonbinding.

Negotiators set out to fund payments to nations impacted by climate change, attempting to address the historical inequity of the past 150 years of fossil fuel emissions. They traded funding for climate change adaptation and mitigation in exchange for release from liability for this history of CO2 pollution. They pledged to protect indigenous rights, human rights, and women’s rights, yet they provided no legal redress for violation of those rights.

Inside and outside the same halls, I heard climate activists cry out that rich nations are polluting, submerging, melting, and literally washing communities off the map. Activists asked questions that nation-states dared not: What about putting the brakes on this unrestrained fossil-fueled growth and consumption? What about putting a quick end to the unbridled exploitation of oil, gas, coal, uranium, trees, animals, and people? Shouldn’t indigenous rights, human rights, and women’s rights be legally protected in climate change mitigation and adaptation projects?

Given a chance and proper funding, shouldn’t our brightest scientific and engineering minds be able to implement a 100-percent renewable energy plan within 35 years, for rich and poor countries alike?

Long before I arrived in Paris, I marked my calendar with a particularly interesting and exciting panel of scientists who were meeting, ostensibly, to answer the question, “Is it possible to design sound climate policy while ignoring science?”

More importantly, the panel promised to probe the challenging moral and ethical space that climate scientists inhabit. The U.N. process asked us to be “policy relevant” rather than “policy prescriptive” in our analysis. In other words, provide the best available science to policymakers, and keep your opinions to yourself.

The Conference center of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Photo by Eric Rehm

That made scientists hesitant to draw dotted lines on IPCC graphs at 2 degrees C (where really bad things happen to global ecosystems) and at 1.5 degrees C (where fewer bad things happen) for fear of taking the place of policy makers who supposedly understand what is politically possible.

We all need to be switching to decarbonize our economies on a much faster time scale.

This poses a challenge for scientists like me. Through our daily work and research, we develop deep connections to ecosystems and the people who depend on them. We understand what’s coming. In the Arctic, I understand the real difference between the impacts that 3.5 degrees C, 2 degrees C, and 1.5 degrees C of warming have on the survival of marine mammals and Inuit communities. So, by night, some scientist become climate activists who write, speak, tweet, and even dare to become policy prescriptive. To science-informed policymakers who refuse to take adequate action, we offer strong words: “ We've got to keep this fucking carbon in the ground ,” said Jason Box, a Greenland glaciologist.

So here, at this U.N.-sponsored panel, I hoped to see a fruitful, perhaps dialectical collision of the scientist-technocrat and the climate activist. I expected strong words regarding both science and broader social change. However, scientists who understood the problem seemed unable to envision a decentralized energy future—except in places far from home. I was suffocated by their notion that we can fix this without changing the status quo. And I was told that I must wait a little longer for social change. How did these scientists get so close, yet remain so far from the change we need?

The quick opening tour of the science panel speakers looked promising to me. First up was Dr. James Hansen, professor at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen gave early warning to global warming in his 1998 testimony before the U.S. Congress. He reminded the Paris audience that he is also an activist, having been arrested for protesting mountaintop coal removal and the Keystone XL pipeline. Climate change is personal, he said; he was doing this for his grandchildren. His prescription: “There’s nothing simpler than an across-the-board carbon fee.” He railed against the U.N. climate change executives who considered his proposal politically unrealistic. While I appreciated his role as godfather of the climate change movement, I also felt a little uncomfortable that Hansen didn’t see a bigger problem here.

Next up was Dr. Youba Sokona, the co-chair of the IPCC—that group of scientists whose observations and predictions are limited to the policy-relevant. The IPCC, he said, has informed the 196 U.N. nations of the dangers of climate change, and now it’s up to these nations to form policy. While Sokona carefully outlined the trajectory of increasingly alarmist IPCC studies from 1988 onward, he did not comment on why the U.N. members had taken so little action during the previous 21 years of climate talks.

Sir David King took the stage. He is the British Foreign Secretary’s special representative for climate change. A physical chemist, he has created a truly independent voice for science-based policy in the U.K. As chief scientific advisor during the Blair and Brown governments (2000-2007), he publicly criticized the U.K.’s inaction on climate change. More recently, he was instrumental in committing the British Parliament to reduce U.K. greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, without waiting for U.N. agreements. “We all need to be switching to decarbonize our economies on a much faster time scale,” he said, recognizing the enormous gap between science advice and policy.

King described the British government’s decision to work with the United States and France and use its annual $18 billion foreign aid program to roll out electricity to every off-grid village in Africa. Yes, decentralized energy is what we all need, I think. Yet, the Guardian reported in 2012 that “the vast majority of [U.K. foreign aid] contracts are still going to companies based in the U.K.” I wondered who would benefit, and felt that icky feeling that we may be seeing the birth of a new form of neocolonialism.

"We need to find allies among social movements, NGOs, and scientists."

The final panelist was Dr. Abel Julio Gonzalez, an advocate of nuclear power. A physicist, Marie Curie Prize winner, and Senior Adviser of the Argentine Nuclear Regulatory Authority, Gonzalez is also a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Most of his speech was spent saying how wrong the anti-nuclear movement and the media had been on the safe track record of nuclear energy. Misunderstood nuclear scientists are the antihero to the climate scientists who have (more or less) heroically enlisted the public and the media in their cause. Never mind that decades of principled nuclear activism have largely focused on the failure of nuclear power economics, security concerns, and links to the nuclear arms race, rather than just personal radiation exposure. Thus, by omission, he essentially indicted anti-nuclear activists as unscientific thinkers, setting the tone for a later panel discussion on the topic of nuclear power. Gonzalez offered that IAEA science is policy prescriptive, where scientists establish nuclear safeguards and standards. He argued that climate change science should be similarly prescriptive. I wanted to blurt out that building reactors as safely as possible is different from saving the planet from heat-driven heart failure.

So far, I was underwhelmed. The French moderator then asked “What about nuclear [power]?” I was speechless as each panel scientist argued for the necessity of nuclear power to achieve rapid reduction of CO2 emissions.

Hansen: “Certainly in the short run, even in the long run, nuclear needs to be a part of the story.” Ignoring the failure of the market to address fossil fuel’s effect on the environment, Hansen urged us to trust nuclear power to the market. “Let these alternatives compete,” he said.

Hansen then trivially waved away solar energy’s prospects: “With sunlight, you need a pretty big area…” thereby ignoring the numerous analyses that fully 25 percent of solar energy potential can come from existing rooftops.

Flitting his hand and smiling, Hansen dismissed activists’ calls for a transition to a less energy-intensive lifestyle. “With the people who say, ‘Oh, you can do it all with sunlight and wind or something,’ they’re assuming energy use will actually go down … using energy efficiency.” Yes, Dr. Hansen, that’s exactly the point.

Vegan demonstrators during lunch time break of the People’s Climate Summit. Photo by Eric Rehm

King jumped into the fray. “Yes, nuclear is an important part of the solution,” because it’s the only choice that is cost-competitive with fossil fuels, he said. I found this unbelievable coming from a scientist who has seen, in his lifetime, the cost of solar energy drop at least 500-fold. Even his regional analysis was flawed: “For those of us in Northern Europe, we don’t have quite as much sunshine [as the tropical latitudes],” he said, disregarding the rapid growth of renewable energy in Germany most recently due to subsidized solar panels.

During the question and answer period, a representative of the French group Tarif Carbone (TACA) pointed out that the consumer is at the center of the CO2 emissions problem. “Consuming is heating the planet, so we, the consumer, need to drastically change. Putting a price on carbon … is completely obvious.”

King acknowledged the need to “accelerate the change in our consumer behavior from [a] linear wasteful economy, damaging to the ecosystems, into a more caring, circular economy.” Then the British scientist slipped. “But let’s just solve the energy question first.”

I was speechless as each panel scientist argued for the necessity of nuclear power.

This dismissal crystallized my accumulated frustration. Three white technocrats were pontificating on technical solutions and policy shifts, yet didn’t see the fundamentally unbalanced social relations defined by centralized nuclear energy, unlimited growth, and conspicuous consumption.

With no nearby microphone, I yelled out from the audience, “That’s the whole problem! There are thousands outside this hall in Paris demanding fundamental social transformation. We can’t wait!” No one could hear me.

The moderator confirmed, “No one can hear you.” That’s also the problem. No one inside the U.N. halls could truly hear the voices of those outside the process—those who say there’s a bigger problem, those who believe that everything must change.

The huge disconnect on how climate change will be solved became clear to me in that moment. Science-informed policymakers propose that if we just do this one thing—nuclear power or carbon fee—everything will be fine. Climate activists, as well as the powerless island nations, highlight the lack of equity and democracy in climate change solutions. The two sides are inches apart in a physical sense but miles apart ideologically.

Where does it come together? Naomi Klein is one person who gets it. Earlier in the week, I attended her Paris workshop, “A Justice-based Energy Transition.” Klein and other Canadian activists offered the Canadian Leap Manifesto as a template for global transition off fossil fuels. The Leap Manifesto was hammered out in the spring of 2015 during the final dark days of Canada’s Harper administration by community activists, moderates, labor leaders, and progressive politicians. It proposes a future where science serves society, “a country powered entirely by renewable energy, woven together by accessible public transit, in which the jobs and opportunities of this transition are designed to systematically eliminate racial and gender inequality.”

Naomi Klein presents at a workshop held in Paris during the UN climate change talks. Photo by Eric Rehm

Leap maintains a connection with science. “We know that the time for this great transition is short,” the manifesto states. “Climate scientists have told us that this is the decade to take decisive action to prevent catastrophic global warming. That means small steps will no longer get us where we need to go. So we need to leap.” It recognizes that science and technology are required for Leap to meet its objectives in decentralized green energy and high-speed rail, localized and ecologically based agricultural systems, and designs that reject damaging extractive projects and respect indigenous rights.

There was also hope inside COP21. Close to 200 nations agreed that climate change is a global problem and that science serves to point the way forward. While sorely missing its targets, the Paris Agreement acknowledged that we are not safe at 2 degrees C of warming. Raising its ambitions, the agreement invited an IPCC Special Report on the impacts of 1.5 degree C warming. For the first time, a U.N. climate accord recognized the need to protect the integrity of ocean ecosystems. It required nations to use science-based IPCC methodologies and metrics to account for their emissions. For most nations, it required biennial reports on emissions and progress towards reduction targets. These are all important advances.

Rather than a summation, the Paris agreement marks a new beginning for the climate movement. We know the science-based targets. We know what to leap for. We need to find allies among social movements, NGOs, and scientists who share the perspective that total transformation is necessary. Indigenous rights, human rights, and women’s rights are not aspirations just to be outlined in a U.N. preamble, but should be protected with the force of law. Deep, rapid cuts in emissions are possible by collaborating with scientists to design a transition to 100 percent renewables that challenges the existing power structure with the very nature of its inherent decentralization. Quickly moving away from fossil fuels and nuclear power—any extractive industry—breaks our ties with an unequal economic system.

Personally, I also found hope during my conversations with other observers and participants I met in Paris. From the Solomon Islands, there were Keith, an Anglican priest, and Nigel, a youth minister and climate change activist. Their 3-meter-high atoll, Ontong Java, is already feeling the effects of sea level rise and saltwater inundation of their groundwater. They perform the bittersweet work of climate adaptation, planning the relocation of half the island’s 3,000 inhabitants. How will the unique culture of this atoll community be retained when the community is severed? They came to Paris to participate in a workshop about the spiritual issues around climate change.

I met Wayne Walker, a city councilor in New Zealand's largest city, Auckland. He was in Paris with ICLEI, a local government sustainability organization. With ICLEI, Wayne is working on kick-ass municipal climate mitigation and adaptation projects in urban poor communities, showing us that cities are taking action far more quickly than nation states.

From Austria and Germany, I met Camille Sifferlen and Günter Lang from the Passive House Institute. We found each other after the science panel in Le Bourget, all sputtering in multiple languages our dismay at the panel’s universal acceptance of nuclear power as climate change savior. They were staffing a booth at La Galerie des Solutions to promote the “Passive House Standard.” Not confined to just homes, passive buildings reliably use one-tenth the energy of conventional buildings. These are people who understand.