As urgency mounts, worry among climate scientists gets personal

by Sebastien Malo | @SebastienMalo | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 12 March 2018 23:47 GMT

A protestor holds a sign in support of science during the March For Science in Seattle. REUTERS/David Ryder

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"Every scientist has to find their own place in the spectrum of science and activism"

By Sebastien Malo

EDMONTON, Canada, March 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When marchers took to the streets of Washington in a pro-science demonstration after U.S. President Donald Trump's election, it was the first time climate scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig put on an activist hat.

Rosenzweig, who works for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has spent decades researching and warning about the dangers of global warming, from punishing floods to drought.

But fears that policy-makers may ignore science and cut funding for research has had her and many like her struggling to balance scientific detachment with the urgency of their findings.

They say they worry that scepticism about climate change is diluting the gravity of their discoveries and losing the attention of the next generation of researchers.

Tens of thousands of people, including Rosenzweig and other scientists swapped lab coats for protest signs, joined the March for Science last April.

"I would say that was my tipping point," said Rosenzweig during a United Nations-backed climate summit in Canada last week where scientists and city planners looked at ways for cities to battle climate change.

"Every scientist has to find their own place in the spectrum of science and activism," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

Climate change hit home for Rosenzweig in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy, which pummeled the U.S. East Coast, she said.

Helping her disoriented 98-year-old mother hunt for candles and matches as the electricity failed left her "overwhelmed," she said.

"It was personally experiencing it as opposed to writing a scholarly paper about it."

Having a big impact on climate scientists was the U.S. president's campaign rhetoric and decision to pull the United States out of the landmark 2015 agreement reached in Paris by nearly 200 nations to fight global warming.

Trump has said he thinks climate change is a hoax.

Scientific consensus, however, holds that climate change is largely manmade, with such devastating effects as extreme weather, rising sea levels and more frequent, powerful storms.

Growing distrust in science poses the great risk that younger people will not pick up the baton and study climate change, said Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a French climate scientist and a co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N.'s top scientific authority on global warming.

"My biggest worry on the political orientation of the current (U.S.) administration is that it dissuades young, brilliant students from studying climate," Masson-Delmotte told the Foundation. She was speaking her personal opinion and not in her capacity as a U.N. official, she said.

At stake is the "loss of a generation of talent," she said.

Initiatives such as French President Emmanuel Macron's offer to give U.S. scientists and academics a refuge in France send an "encouraging" signal but nevertheless are symbolic, she said. Masson-Delmotte has been involved in selecting candidates.

The handful of U.S. projects that have received French funding cannot replace the weight of U.S. research, she said.

Climate skepticism runs high in places like the U.S. state of Texas, said Katharine Hayhoe, who heads the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University (TTU).

More than half of residents in the northwestern Texas area where TTU is located did not believe global warming was man-made, a 2016 poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication showed.

Hayhoe's colleagues increasingly share stories of students discouraged from studying climate science in the current political environment, she said.

"When you are being systematically told that what you are, what you do does not matter ... You might feel like 'Well I just want to do good science, so why would I go into a field where I'm going to get hate mail?'" she told the Foundation.

(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst ((Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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