Time for climate scientists to go on strike

The sun rises over an oil field over the Monterey Shale formation on March 24, 2014 near Lost Hills, Calif.
The sun rises over an oil field over the Monterey Shale formation on March 24, 2014 near Lost Hills, Calif.

Late last night Yokohama time, the world’s scientists did once more what they’ve done so many times in the past: issued a thumping big report demonstrating that climate change poses the greatest danger our civilization has ever faced. These regular analyses have been conducted since 1995 under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- by now the papers, indexes, footnotes and drafts would fill the Superdome.

They’ve said it with graphs, they’ve said it with tables. They’ve offered color-coded guides to future decades. They’ve told us about basic science and, when that didn’t work, they’ve tried to explain it in terms anyone could understand. The latest summary, for instance, shows that most studies of food production in a warming world forecast dire trouble -- some, by century’s end, show a 50% reduction in crop yields. Both drought and flood will keep on increasing, the number of refugees will climb sharply, and we risk “civil wars and intergroup violence.”  

As one of the lead authors, Princeton scientist Michael Oppenheimer, summed it up at the paper’s release: “We’re all sitting ducks.”

They’ve done their job. (And they’ve done it for free -- working on these endless IPCC reports is a volunteer job). They’ve warned us, amply. The scientific method, with researchers working hard to disprove each others' hypotheses, has worked. It’s yielded a concise answer to a difficult problem in chemistry and physics. When you pour carbon into the air, the planet heats up and then all hell breaks loose. That’s basically what you need to know.

But if science has worked, political science has failed. So far, the world’s political leaders have balked at ever doing anything about global warming, and each new warning produces declarations of meaningless resolve. Here’s John Kerry, the Secretary of State, reacting to the latest study: “Read this report and you can’t deny the reality: Unless we act dramatically and quickly, science tells us our climate and our way of life are literally in jeopardy.” True enough, and eloquent enough, except that his own State Department team last month recommended building the Keystone Pipeline through the American heartland, a project opposed by every prominent American climate scientist.

So at this point it’s absurd to keep asking the scientific community to churn out more reports. In fact, it might almost be more useful if they went on strike: until you pay attention to what we’ve already told you, we won’t be telling you more. Work with what you’ve got. We’re a quarter-century ahead -- when you deal with the trouble we’ve already described then we’ll tell you what’s coming next.

Or, better yet, the scientists could join the rest of us in the growing climate movement - they could come out in the streets. A few already have, great leaders like NASA’s James Hansen. But we need many more to follow -- at this point the white lab coats would be better used drawing attention to sit-ins and protests than drawing yet another set of ignored conclusions.

After all, scientists in the end are exactly like the rest of us. We all have day jobs, and in those jobs we can sometimes do some good on these issues: preachers can preach about climate change, and carpenters can build solar homes. But our other important role is as citizens. On nights and weekends we have to do the (also volunteer) work that at this point is the only thing that can make a difference.

Because it’s perfectly clear by now that you can’t scare politicians with the news that the world is ending. It’s going to require convincing them that something they really care about might disappear: their jobs.