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Climate Change Forces Scientists to Speak Up

Finding the bal­ance between engaging in a thoughtful debate and being per­ceived as Chicken Little are the key challenges

by Northeastern University
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Pro­fessor Brian Hel­muthPro­fessor Brian Hel­muthPhoto credit: Brooks Canaday/for North­eastern UniversityA decade ago, when­ever the topic of cli­mate change would come up, Northeastern University’s Brian Hel­muth would focus solely on the sci­en­tific facts while delib­er­ately ignoring the poten­tial long-term soci­etal implications.

It’s the way that Hel­muth, whose research cen­ters on cli­mate change’s impact on coastal ecosys­tems, was trained. But, he recalled, “It was so dry. No one would ever listen and it didn’t enact any change.”

Now—as those pre­vi­ously hush-hush impacts of cli­mate change become more and more obvious—Helmuth has adopted a dif­ferent tone.

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Since my kids are going to inherit this planet, I decided that I have to talk about the impli­ca­tions and not just the sci­en­tific facts,” said Hel­muth, a pro­fessor of envi­ron­mental sci­ence and public policy with joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence and the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. “I am careful that if I say some­thing is true, I make sure it can be backed up by sci­ence. But I’m not afraid now to also say ‘Here is what is going to happen if we don’t act on that information.’”

Walking the line

Finding the bal­ance between engaging in a thoughtful debate and being per­ceived as Chicken Little exclaiming the sky is falling is some­thing cli­mate change sci­en­tists wrestle with more and more. They want to make sure people are prop­erly informed on what is hap­pening and what can be done, but don’t want to be per­ceived as over-exaggerating alarmists, as fea­tured in this story pub­lished in Esquire last month.

There is this view that if you don’t take an extreme view, then it is not being com­mu­ni­cated well,” said Auroop Gan­guly, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering.

Asso­ciate pro­fessor Auroop Gan­guly Asso­ciate pro­fessor Auroop Gan­guly Photo credit: Brooks Canaday/?for North­eastern UniversityAn expert in cli­mate extremes and water sus­tain­ability, Gan­guly con­siders him­self an opti­mistic person. But, much to his sur­prise, he finds self-doubt creeping into his mind when debating cer­tain aspects of cli­mate change, such as adap­ta­tion, how society is adjusting to cli­mate change’s impact, and mit­i­ga­tion, efforts to reduce green­house gas emissions.

Adap­ta­tion is where I do see a lot of hope,” Gan­guly said. “I wouldn’t say it is hap­pening at the pace it needs to, but it is hap­pening. When I think about mit­i­ga­tion, that is where, unknown to myself until recently, I have this level of pessimism.”

Asso­ciate pro­fessor Matthew NisbetAsso­ciate pro­fessor Matthew NisbetCon­tributed photoMatthew Nisbet, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design who studies the overlap between com­mu­ni­ca­tions and sci­ence and tech­nology, said that get­ting the gen­eral public inter­ested in cli­mate change won’t come by speaking more urgently on the issue.

"In some ways, if sci­en­tists do choose to be more urgent, more vocal, and poten­tially more polit­ical, there is a pos­si­bility of the mes­sage back­firing and under­cut­ting public faith in the actual sci­ence,” said Nisbet.

Instead, the focus needs to be on a broad array of solu­tions that do not fit easily with any par­tic­ular polit­ical agenda. Exam­ples include empha­sizing the many ben­e­fits of investing in clean energy inno­va­tions, high tech farming prac­tices, more resilient cities and com­mu­ni­ties, and more equi­table, sus­tain­able economies.

Hel­muth noted that cli­mate change sci­en­tists have to con­sider their audi­ence. “Sharing sto­ries is the only way to get people to listen, and you have to make it as local as pos­sible,” he said.

It’s all about location

The local and regional level is where all three experts agreed sci­en­tists can see the ben­efit of their cli­mate change mes­saging. Nisbet said get­ting out and meeting with people who are seeing direct impacts of cli­mate change—like fish­ermen and farmers—not only informs the sci­en­tists but gets stake­holders involved in solu­tion planning.

The idea is that instead of one-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion by engaging the public through the press, sci­en­tists invest in local forums and ini­tia­tives where rel­e­vant groups come together to dis­cuss a problem and con­sider solutions,”said Nisbet who serves on a U.S. National Acad­e­mies com­mittee studying these strate­gies and advises the Amer­ican Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance of Sci­ence on the topic. “The public needs to have an active role in the decision-making and solu­tion process.”

Hel­muth has already begun a project to learn more about what cli­mate change is doing at the local level, and has tasked North­eastern under­grad­uate stu­dent Megan Reilly with trav­eling to coastal New Eng­land towns to hear res­i­dents’ stories.

We want to record these sto­ries on a very local level and help the story teller under­stand how what they are seeing makes sense because it fits into the larger con­text of global cli­mate change,” Hel­muth said.