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The Role of the Scientist

(from The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars by Michael E. Mann Copyright ©2012 Michael E. Mann. Reprinted with permission of Columbia University Press.)

What is the proper role for scientists in the societal discourse surrounding climate change? Should they remain ensconced in their labs, with their heads buried in their laptops? Or should they engage in vigorous efforts to communicate their findings and speak out about the implications? I once subscribed to the former point of view. As a graduate student and then a beginning postdoctoral researcher in the mid-1990's, I wanted nothing more than to be left alone analyzing data, constructing and running theoretical climate models, and pursuing curiosity-driven science. When we first published our hockey stick work in the late 1990's, I was of the belief that the role of a scientist was, simply put, to do science. Others, I felt, should be left to assess and publicize any implications of the science. Taking anything even remotely resembling a position regarding climate change policy was, to me, anathema. Doing so, I felt, would compromise the authority of my science. I felt that scientists should take an entirely dispassionate view when discussing matters of science – that we should do our best to divorce ourselves from all of our typically human inclinations – emotion, empathy, concern. In the interviews I conducted with reporters, I was careful not to wade into the dangerous waters of expressing a personal opinion and to avoid entirely the subject of policy implications.

Everything I have experienced since then has gradually convinced me that my former viewpoint was misguided. I became a public figure involuntarily when our work was thrust into the public spotlight in the late 1990's. I have remained a public figure since, but I have come to embrace, rather than eschew, that role. Despite the battle scars I've suffered from having served on the front lines in the climate wars – and they are numerous – I remain convinced that there is nothing more noble than striving to communicate, in terms that are simultaneously accurate and accessible, the societal implications of our scientific knowledge. Indeed, much of my time and effort over the past decade has been dedicated to doing so.

I can continue to live with the cynical assaults against my integrity and character by the corporate-funded denial machine. What I could not live with is knowing that I stood by silently as my fellow human beings, confused and misled by industry-funded propaganda, were unwittingly led down a tragic path that would mortgage future generations. How could we explain to our grandchildren that we saw the threat coming, but did not do all we could to ensure that humankind took the necessary precautions? Scientists who study climate change and its potential impacts understand better than anyone the nature of the climate change threat. It would, in my view, be irresponsible for us to silently stand by while industry-funded climate change deniers succeed in confusing and distracting the public and dissuading our policy makers from taking appropriate actions. If climategate and the other related attacks against climate science have served no purpose other than to awaken the scientific community to the reality that we are in a war and to move some of my colleagues off the fence, then they will have served a purpose.

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