Skip to main content

In defence of science: Making facts great again

"We must not let rhetoric or vested interests divert us from what we know is the right course of action."


From across the Atlantic, the European scientific community is watching warily as our American colleagues endure increasingly politicised attacks on their work and on the very foundation of evidence-based science.

President Donald Trump's decision earlier this month to withdraw the United States from the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change - a decision condemned by heads of state, businesses, mayors and ordinary people in the US and the world over - epitomised this contempt for the facts from some within the political sphere.

We can, to some degree, relate, as many European scientists - and particularly those who research climate change and its impacts, as I do - have been forced to confront the politicisation of their disciplines, the distortion of their research and the promotion of "alternative facts" and vested-interest propaganda.

In fact, just two months ago at the annual General Assembly of the European Geosciences Union, for the first time in the body's history, we debated issues around existential threats to science in general, the integrity of the scientific community, trust in science and what we can do to ensure that evidence-based science forms the basis for informed decisions and debate by policymakers and the public.

Later this month, we'll watch as some of our American colleagues gather for the annual Broadcast Meteorology Conference of the American Meteorological Society, which will include in its programme a short course explicitly focused on the communication of climate science.

Never has accurate, fact-based communication of climate science been more urgently needed, and in modern history, it has rarely been so compromised. There is a clear trend, particularly evident in the US, of a growing distrust of "experts" who are branded as intellectual elites, rooted in a populist backlash towards the establishment.

This goes all the way up the rungs of government to the American president himself, who has called climate change a "hoax" and in his first 100 days in office has moved to curb spending on climate and earth science research and is overseeing an agency-wide scrubbing of climate science out of federal websites and publications.

As he announced the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on June 1, Trump also left himself open to accusations of misrepresenting climate science to suit his own political objectives: after the US president quoted a figure from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study to support his argument that the Paris Agreement is ineffectual, MIT officials - including one of the study's authors - declared that Trump had misunderstood their work and that they did not support a US withdrawal from the agreement.

The science of climate change, however, is clearer than ever. We see the fingerprints of human-induced global warming on more and more long-term climate trends. In the US and throughout the world, for instance, warmer temperatures are amplifying the intensity, duration and frequency of many weather events, none more evident than extreme heat. Western states have suffered through record numbers of heat waves since the turn of the century, with overnight temperatures often at historical highs. This is particularly dangerous as it doesn't give the human body the necessary relief. Already, these heat waves are costing lives, and the scientific link between human-induced global warming and heat waves is crystal clear. The European heat wave of 2003 is estimated to have caused 35,000 premature deaths and was very likely a consequence of human interference with the climate system.

By listening to the best available science on climate change, we can better prepare for its impacts. By ignoring, censoring, or shunning our scientists, we put more Americans at risk. The alternative to informed decision-making is uninformed decision-making. Without evidence-based science, decisions of vital importance to humanity will be made founded in prejudice, emotion and ignorance. That is no way to run the planet. It is no way to plan our future.

Besides helping prepare for the impacts of climate change, science should guide our efforts to minimise them. For these mitigation efforts, the science is telling us that we don't have much time. In fact, it's saying that 2020 must be the target for peaking global carbon emissions. We must bend the curve of global greenhouse gas emissions towards a steady decline by the next US presidential election. If emissions continue to rise beyond 2020, the world stands very little chance of limiting global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the threshold set by the Paris Agreement, and a temperature limit that many of the world's most vulnerable communities consider a threshold for survival.

The world has four short years to reverse our emissions trends to avoid the very real risk of dangerous and irreversible climate change, but we won't get the policies we need without trusting and relying on the science that tells us that's so. Science has no political affiliation, nor can it be bent to your will. You don't renegotiate with physics and you aren't about to "win" a deal with chemistry. We must not let rhetoric, vested interests or the blind dismissal of the overwhelming scientific consensus divert us from what we know is the right course of action ethically, scientifically and economically.

By Jonathan Bamber, professor of polar science at the University of Bristol and president of the European Geosciences Union. Blog originally posted on Al Jazeera.

Popular posts from this blog

Powering the economy through the engine of Smart Local Energy Systems

How can the Government best retain key skills and re-skill and up-skill the UK workforce to support the recovery and sustainable growth? This summer the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) requested submission of inputs on Post-Pandemic Economic Growth. The below thoughts were submitted to the BEIS inquiry as part of input under the EnergyREV project . However, there are points raised here that, in the editing and summing up process of the submission, were cut out, hence, this blog on how the UK could power economic recovery through Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES). 1. Introduction: Factors, principles, and implications In order to transition to a sustainable and flourishing economy from our (post-)COVID reality, we must acknowledge and address the factors that shape the current economic conditions. I suggest to state the impact of such factors through a set of driving principles for the UK’s post-COVID strategy. These factors are briefly explained belo

Farming in the Páramos of Boyacá: industrialisation and delimitation in Aquitania

Labourers harvest ‘cebolla larga’ onion in Aquitania. Image credit: Lauren Blake. In October and November 2019 Caboteer  Dr Lauren Blake  spent time in Boyacá, Colombia, on a six-week fieldtrip to find out about key socio-environmental conflicts and the impacts on the inhabitants of the páramos, as part of the historical and cultural component of her research project, POR EL Páramo . Background information about the research can be found in the earlier blog on the project website . Descending down the hill in the bus from El Crucero, the pungent smell of cebolla larga onion begins to invade my nose. The surrounding land transforms into plots of uniform rows of onion tops at various stages of growth, some mostly brown soil with shoots poking out along the ridges, others long, bushy and green. Sandwiched between the cloud settled atop the mountainous páramos and the vast, dark blue-green Lake Tota, all I can see and all I can smell is onion production. Sprinklers are scattered around, dr

IncrEdible! How to save money and reduce waste

The new academic year is a chance to get to grips with managing your student loan and kitchen cupboards. Over lockdown the UK wasted a third less food than we usually would. This is brilliant, as normally over 4.5 million tonnes of edible food is wasted from UK homes every year. For students, it’s even higher. The average cost of food waste per student per week is approximately £5.25 - that's about £273 per year !  It’s not just our bank accounts that are affected by food waste – it’s our planet too. The process of growing, making, distributing, storing and cooking our food uses masses of energy, fuel and water. It generates 30% of the world’s CO₂ greenhouse gas emissions. The same amount of CO₂ as 4.6 million return flights from London to Perth, Australia! So it makes sense to keep as much food out of the bin as possible, start wasting less and saving more.  Start the new term with some food waste busting, budget cutting, environment loving habits! Here’s five easy ways to reduce