Scientific conclusions about climate change have moved beyond the realm of pure science and begun to percolate into social policy and political decisions. As a result, many non-scientists are interested in the latest news about climate change, from companies in the energy sector to government officials across the globe. Interest groups and policymakers participate in matters ranging from validating scientific data to interpreting the impact of scientific studies on the public. Consequently, scientists’ roles have expanded and expectations for scientific accountability and transparency have risen. Scientists not only forge ahead with climate research, but also guide public understanding and advise governments on climate change policy.
Scientists as Researchers
Some recent research has focused on the effects of climate change on various ecosystems. For example, scientists observing salamander populations in the Appalachian Mountains found that the body size of museum specimens of salamanders from the 1950s is larger than their sizes today, and that the salamanders have shrunk fastest in regions where the temperature has fluctuated the most . Unlike humans, salamanders are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature because they are unable to regulate their own temperature. Knowing that salamanders very readily change their metabolism (how quickly they burn through energy from food) to adjust their internal temperature to the world outside of their bodies, one conclusion researchers made was that the changes in body size are possibly caused by climate change. In other words, in response to the temperature changes, the salamanders burn through the energy they obtained from calories rather than storing them in their bodies, resulting in smaller body size. The mechanism behind this is unclear, but scientists have previously proposed that warmer environments may yield decreases in body mass . However, this does not dismiss the possibility that other factors, such as decreasing food sources, could be contributing to smaller body size. Pursuing similar research can inform scientists about how organisms in nature may be capable of adapting to climate change.
Another study has found that as arctic ice melts in response to global climate change, disease-causing parasites travel more easily to infect new organisms . Scientists studying seal populations in the Arctic discovered that a parasite never previously found in seals is now infecting them at a rapid pace. The warmer climate may have allowed parasites to spread farther north because these northern locations are no longer cold enough to kill them. Also, parasites that were previously trapped in ice are released when the ice melts. Through these two likely mechanisms, disease-causing parasites are spreading to new location. Although this research will require more validation, it contributes to knowledge about how climate change can disrupt local ecosystems by introducing disease. Importantly, such studies can help us understand how the distribution of human pathogens, such as West Nile virus, can be affected by climate change . As scientists make more connections between global climate change and small-scale ecosystem changes, they can form a more complete picture of the extent to which climate change impacts the globe.
Scientists as Watchdogs
In scientific fields like climatology, where the results of studies could have large impacts on the public, the scientific role includes translating research findings so that the general public understands the impacts of climate change. Sometimes, climatologists write about their work or their colleagues’ work in popular media. Other times, they challenge popular misinterpretations of climate science.
In 2011, The Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World published a new world map on which the size of Greenland’s ice sheet had suddenly shrunk by a massive 15%, compared to a map published only twelve years prior . The change was supposed to reflect the ice loss in Greenland due to global warming. However, glaciologists with active knowledge about the ice sheet were quick to point out that an error had been made: although the ice sheet was melting, much of the ice that had been omitted from the map was still intact. Several experts wrote a letter to The Times requesting that such publications about the effects of climate change on the Earth’s geography be suitably backed up by scientific evidence, and the atlas published a correction.
Quick action on the part of scientists and researchers to identify misinterpretations of their work is important to prevent erroneous information from being spread to the public. This is especially crucial to prevent public mistrust in science.
Figure 1. Gray seal populations, which inhabit warmer regions of the arctic, are dwindling due to infection by parasites that are on the move due to global climate change. (Bill Perry, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
Scientists as Policymakers
The importance of science in informing policy is illustrated by the presence of various official scientific groups that advise top decision makers in national and international governments. Like other scientists, climatologists often work with policymakers to provide a sound scientific basis for national and international decisions about climate change.
Since 1933, each President of the United States has appointed a scientific advisory board. The current President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has provided many suggestions on combating climate change . For instance, they have proposed preventative measures to safeguard citizens from the effects of climate change, such as outbreaks of extreme weather, based on recent studies that correlate climate change to extreme weather events . This involves interpreting and implementing scientific studies that try to predict the occurrence of these events, as well as the revision of federal natural disaster response protocols. In the most recent report, PCAST requested reforms of organizations that oversee federal insurance policies and disaster relief due to the recent occurrences of droughts, wildfires, and floods (such as the one caused by Hurricane Sandy).
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) plays an important role in informing international policy decisions . This group, which includes scientists from around the world, contributes to detailed reports on the state of climate change and climate change research for the United Nations (UN). They also negotiate with diplomats over what information makes it into the limited space of official reports. These negotiations are crucial because many nations have strong opinions on how certain scientific findings may represent or affect their reputations, and thus have vested interests in what information makes it to the UN. For example, studies that demonstrate higher greenhouse emissions from low income countries compared to high income countries are extremely important to consider when making policies to lower global greenhouse emissions. However, diplomats concerned about their countries’ economic growth and development have strongly debated against figures from these studies appearing in report summaries . Scientists’ involvement ensures that these reports contain as much accurate scientific information as possible, with minimal influence from outside interest groups.
The Complete Scientist
Scientific responsibility does not end with performing good research and publishing results in scientific journals. In topics as politically salient as climate change, scientists also have roles in informing the public, preventing and correcting misinterpretation of scientific findings, and using their expertise and knowledge to guide policy-making decisions related to climate change. Unfortunately, the exemplary actions of the scientists mentioned above are notable in part because they are so rare. Poor scientific communication is evident not just in the scientific study of climate change, but also in fields such as medical research, where the use of vaccines and antibiotics are often misunderstood by the public. These examples, however, prove that scientific engagement with the broader community is often effective and can be a benefit to public health and safety. This involvement ensures that scientists maintain clear lines of communication with the society at large and that policy decisions are well-informed.
Emily Low is a graduate student in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences program at Harvard Medical School.
- Williams, Sarah C. P. “Warming World Shrinks Salamanders.” ScienceNow. March 25, 2014.
- Daufresne, Martin, Lengfellner, Kathrin, and Sommer, Ulrich. “Global Warming Benefits the Small in Aquatic Ecosystems.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science United States of America, 106(31), July 20, 2009.
- Underwood, Emily. “Melting Arctic Ice Releases Deadly Seal Parasite.” ScienceNow. February 14, 2014.
- Kendall, Rebecca. “Is West Nile virus coming to your town? UCLA releases first risk-assessment predictions.” UCLA Newsroom, Science + Technology. February 28, 2014.
- Reardon, Sara. “Atlas Shrugged? ‘Outraged’ Glaciologists Say Mappers Misrepresented Greenland Ice Melt.” ScienceInsider, September 19, 2011.
- “Times Atlas reviews Greenland map accuracy after climate change row.” The Guardian, September 22, 2011. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/sep/22/times-atlas-reviews-greenland-map
- Weiss, Rick. “PCAST Releases New Climate Report.” The White House Blog, Office of Science and Technology Policy. March 22, 2013. http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/03/22/pcast-releases-new-climate-report.
- Francis, Jennifer A. and Vavrus, Stephen J. Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes. Geophysical Research Letters, 39(6). March 2012.
- Kintisch, Eli. “Scientists Licking Wounds After Contentious Climate Report Negotiations.” ScienceInsider, April 22, 2014.