Saturday, November 16, 2013

Science meets politics

Back in graduate school, I was solely focused on science, my laboratory research -- a total geek, I guess you could say. Our lab investigated carbon-concentrating mechanisms in algae and studied how photosynthetic organisms responded to environmental stress, including how plants would respond to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. I remember my thesis advisor saying this work would be important some day, but at the time, people weren’t yet talking about global climate change.

At that time, I was fairly apolitical, tuned out from most world events except for major ones like the Challenger explosion. I couldn’t understand why my lab mates listened to NPR all the time. Little did I know that I would someday find myself in the middle of international climate change debates and politics. But here I am in Warsaw, attending my fifth COP (Conference of the Parties) – the annual meeting under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

I am a member of RINGOs – the Research and Independent NGO constituency group, one of nine officially recognized by the UNFCCC Secretariat. Each day of the COP, we meet at 9:00 a.m. to review progress in the negotiations, to share what we are hearing in the hallways, and to network. It is a roomful of researchers – natural, physical, and social scientists, along with engineers, some lawyers and others. Many of us wonder how we ended up here, in arena of world politics. Most of us realize that it is because the scientific data scares us into action.

I came across this article today, about Dr. Michael Mann from Penn State, a scientist who has really been thrown into the political arena, and certainly not by choice. I suggest you read it.

Michael Mann has authored two books with interesting titles:
  • Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming - The Illustrated Guide to the Findings of the IPCC and
  • The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines.
The late Stephen Schneider, another world-famous climate scientist and 1992 MacArthur Genius Award winner was the author of several books. The one that caught my attention was written in 2009:

Science as a Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save the Earth's Climate.

Our delegation met Dr. Schneider at COP15 in Copenhagen and he told us stories of the early days of climate science and of the countless death threats that he received. Simply for researching and writing about climate science.

Stephen Schneider speaking at a COP15 event

Dr. Schneider and James Balog (geologist, mountaineer, photographer) meet
with Moravian students and faculty at COP15.  Balog has recently produced
Chasing Ice after going to extremes to capture video of glacier retreat
and major glacial calving events
Many people have heard of Dr. James Hansen, a scientist who recently retired from NASA and affiliated with Columbia University. In 1988, he gave testimony to congressional committees that helped raise awareness of climate change; under the Bush administration, his reports on the topic were famously red-lined by government officials (see, for instance, the NPR story at ).

Moravian students with Dr. James Hansen at a PennFuture event
Nowadays, people might know him best for his activism, and indeed, he has been arrested a few times. He is also an author of a book published in 2009 entitled:

Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth about the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity.

I often wonder what turns brilliant scientists, who are normally extremely focused and objective, into authors of books with such apocalyptic titles, or even into activists. The countless scientists that I have met throughout my career are not prone to hyperbole, or acting like “chicken little”.

Many of the young researchers who came to the RINGOs meeting this week said that they wanted a “home” within the COP meetings that wasn’t focused on climate activism such as the YOUNGOs (youth constituency) and ENGOs (the constituency for environmental organizations) are known for. But yet, all of these people also expressed frustration with the process and slow progress made in negotiations.  We wish that the sense of urgency noted in the recent reports of the science-based IPCC reports and the books of renown climate scientists would infect the negotiations process. Will activism make this happen?

Yesterday, three undergraduates who are chemistry majors and representing the American Chemical Society (1) went with me to the Maria Sklodowska-Curie Museum. We were surprised to see a quote attributed to her, apparently part of a speech given at the League of Nations, which seemed so relevant for those of us attending the UNFCCC meetings this week.

I understand that international cooperation is a very difficult task, but it must be undertaken even if it requires immense effort and genuine devotion.

I do not know the context of this, but I am intrigued at this hint that other scientists were thinking about international cooperation a very long time ago. I wonder how this was received at the time, especially from a female scientist, albeit a two-time Nobel Prize winner.

1.  Note:  These students are blogging at .  They are beginning their foray into climate change politics much earlier than I did in my career.

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