As a research scientist in Carnegie Mellon University’s interdisciplinary department of Engineering and Public Policy, I field a lot of questions. Perhaps the toughest of those is “How can you sleep at night, when you know your research is influencing policy?  We’re scientists, not advocates!”  Well, shall we pause a moment to consider how our reluctance to talk about policy implications has affected the global warming debate?

The scientific consensus is that climate change is occurring and is anthropogenically caused. Since 2007, no scientific body of national, or international, standing rejects the findings of human-induced climate change.  Yet, in the United States, public opinion and public policy are not quite there, yet.  The figure below shows America’s response to Gallup, the Pew Research Center, Stanford University, the University of Michigan (cited by Brookings), and Yale University/ George Mason polls asking “Is global warming happening?”  While the differences between polls likely occur due to question wording, one stark realization stands out:  since 2006, only 50-85% of Americans have agreed that global warming is happening.  Shouldn’t this be closer to 99%?

    Caption: Percent of total American public answering “Yes” to the question “Is global warming happening?” The variation in values may result from the wording in the survey questions. Source: Updated from author’s blog at Center for Clean Air Policy, “Extreme Weather Trends, Climate Science, and Public Opinion” (http://ccap.org/extreme-weather-trends-climate-science-and-public-opinion/).

Percent of total American public answering “Yes” to the question “Is global warming happening?” The variation in values may result from the wording in the survey questions. Source: Updated from author’s blog at Center for Clean Air Policy, “Extreme Weather Trends, Climate Science, and Public Opinion” (http://ccap.org/extreme-weather-trends-climate-science-and-public-opinion/).

As climate change impacts loom and related extreme weather begins to increase, scientists reluctant to speak have one silver lining – that despite an indecisive America, politicians are beginning to acknowledge the science and call for change.  Recent notable events include:

  • After Superstorm Sandy, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg stated, “Our climate is changing. And while the increase in extreme weather we have experienced in New York City and around the world may or may not be the result of it, the risk that it might be – given this week’s devastation – should compel all elected leaders to take immediate action.”
  • In January 2013 in his Inauguration Address, President Barack Obama announced, “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
  • In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama declared, “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions to take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.
  • On February 14, 2013, the U.S. Government Accountability Office added climate change to list of highest risks facing the U.S. with the statement “Climate change poses risks to many environmental and economic systems – including agriculture, infrastructure, ecosystems, and human health – and presents a significant financial risk to the federal government.”

As scientists, it’s not very easy to take a step outside of our normal comfort zone and explore the policy implications of our work.  Yet to truly prepare for our future, we will need to understand not only the science, but also the policy implications for the challenges of our time. Please join us at the American Geophysical Union 2013 Science Policy Conference.  Together, we can ensure our science is heard.

-Dr. Kelly Klima, Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University

The views of this article do not reflect those of the AGU as an organization