It’s been a wild start to 2022: Omicron cases are surging around the world, the oceans are hotter than ever, and a group of climate scientists are suggesting that the world’s leading global warming experts stop doing science.
In an article published in the academic news outlet The Conversation last week (and in the academic journal Climate and Development last month), three scientists from New Zealand, including a former lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, argued that the world’s climate experts should take action — by not taking action.
No more reports from the IPCC, no more warnings of damage to oceans, the atmosphere, or forests. No more analyses of atmospheric dynamics or predictions of how high sea level will rise.
“We call for a moratorium on climate change research until governments are willing to fulfill their responsibilities in good faith,” they wrote. This, they argued, “offers the only real prospect for restoring the science-society contract.” The researchers call it a “moratorium,” but perhaps it’s better described as a strike — a refusal to persist in basic scientific research until governments of the world get their act together.
Their demand is somewhat understandable. For four decades, scientists from across the globe have tried to warn humanity about the unmitigated burning of fossil fuels. They’ve predicted debilitating heat waves, crushing droughts, and rising seas. They’ve courted the media and practically begged policymakers to cut the use of coal, oil, and gas. But for the most part, scientists have been ignored.
Since 1990, when the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its first report on global warming, carbon dioxide emissions have climbed by about 67 percent. Earlier this week, a European climate monitoring service announced that the last seven years were the hottest ever recorded. In the face of that reality, scientists are grasping for anything that could change the course of the planet.
“We’ve been wrestling with what our role is as scientists on the climate change front,” said Bruce Glavovic, one of the authors of the paper and a professor of environment and planning at Massey University. “If you look at some of the pivotal moments in social history where a course of action has shifted, it’s taken symbolic stands by people who aren’t necessarily famous or important.”
But the logic of their suggestion seems backwards. The most successful strikes and protests manage to withhold something necessary from those in power: labor, goods, smoothly operating infrastructure. Climate science, for all its critical importance, isn’t a field like meteorology, where timely predictions are needed daily to save lives. And while some strikes and protests — Greta Thunberg’s sit-in outside the Swedish Parliament, for example, Standing Rock, or the Extinction Rebellion movement in the U.K. — have garnered attention and media focus, the world’s governments remain far off-track of their stated climate goals. If nations currently aren’t listening to scientists, why would staying silent suddenly force governments to pay attention?
“I don’t think a vacuum of knowledge will work when a fountain of knowledge hasn’t been the answer,” said Kim Cobb, a professor of climate science at the University of Georgia and a lead author for the IPCC.
Moreover, not everyone agrees on the existence of a straightforward “science-society contract.” Some scientists seem to believe that if they only communicate their work clearly and accurately, the public and the world’s governments will fall into line. Bruce Glavovic cites New Zealand’s COVID-19 response as an example of a functioning contract: Epidemiologists and infectious disease experts advised the government on what to do about the novel coronavirus, the government responded with strict lockdowns and border controls, and the country managed to avoid the worst impacts of the pandemic.
But in most cases there isn’t a direct line between science and policy action — and there never has been. Scientific information is always viewed through a vortex of ideology, politics, and power. Science can tell us that we need to stop burning fossil fuels, but it can’t tell us exactly how we should transition our economy to clean energy. Science can warn us about the risks of leaving our homes unmasked, but it can’t tell us whether we should accept the dangers of visiting family over the holidays or dining indoors at a restaurant.
“The social contract between the scientific community and policymakers/society is this: They pay us to do research and we provide them with the results,” Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University, wrote on Twitter. “That’s it. That’s the contract.”
Other scientists also reacted with frustration to the idea of a moratorium or strike, arguing that they have a responsibility to continue their work as long as there are questions that need to be answered about the extent of sea level rise, how global warming will affect different ecosystems, and which areas of the planet will need to adapt most quickly. Moreover, there are already significant barriers to research in the Global South, and scientific “weak spots” in areas that will be most impacted by dangerous warming.
“Imagine if six months ago respiratory scientists and epidemiologists had said, ‘Our work is not being effectively deployed as a public policy, and therefore we’re done,’” said Sarah Myhre, a climate scientist and senior fellow for oceans at the nonprofit organization Project Drawdown. “It’s ridiculous.”
The core problem with the idea of a climate science strike is that raising the stakes hasn’t worked in the past. Scientists have spent decades trying to bring greater urgency to the climate crisis — with little success. Their failure is not due to a lack of trying, or poor communication skills; their failure is because scientists, alone, cannot solve climate change. They have, in a large part, done their work. The rest is up to us.