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AGU Fall Meeting 2016: how should scientists respond to the US election?

By Liz Kalaugher

The mood, amongst panel members at least, at the session on the shifting landscape for science at the AGU Fall Meeting was surprisingly upbeat. Perhaps the “pep talk” from Governor of California Jerry Brown earlier in the day, as AGU president-elect Eric Davidson put it, had helped. Though that’s not to dismiss the very real worries of many Earth and space scientists following the US election.

“The landscape for science is shifting and uncertain,” said AGU CEO Chris McEntee as she introduced the panel. “Use this session as an opportunity to tell us about your concerns and what you think we should be doing.”

To kick off, AGU public affairs director Lexi Shultz said she knows there’s a great deal of anxiety about what the political landscape means for science. Lots of the areas of concern are in climate change, given that there are nominees to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy who hold views incompatible with climate science. Shultz stressed, however, that these nominees must undergo a lengthy Senate confirmation process and there will be plenty of opportunities to raise questions.

Another area of concern, Shultz said, is the questionnaire that’s been sent out to Department of Energy employees at national laboratories, including questions such as what associations they are part of. The Department of Energy has told employees not to answer these questions. (Yesterday, Greg Dalton of Climate One, chairing a panel on Shifting the Energy Mix in a Post-Paris World asked Howard Gruenspecht, deputy administrator of the US Energy Information Administration whether he felt the questionnaire was reminiscent of Hollywood in the 1950s. Gruenspecht said he wasn’t going to answer that one.)

Shultz stressed, however, that all US government science agencies are funded at existing levels through to April and “we have time to make our case”. There may also be opportunities as Trump has promised to invest in infrastructure, which is “very dependent on science”. There is bipartisan support in Congress for basic research, and the scientific community has allies in the business community and beyond, Shultz added. Although Trump originally said he wants to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate, many businesses have stated that they’d like to stay in. Since then Trump has said he has an open mind.

Shultz added that we don’t know what the administration will be able to do: “the wheels of the policy process grind very slowly.” The AGU will be a strong advocate for Earth and space science. “Your voice matters,” she said, urging scientists to make the case for their science by talking to their representatives and community, and encouraging their colleagues to do the same. Any scientists who feel less comfortable with this approach can tell their story to the AGU, she suggested.

Up next, Dan Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley took Shultz’s lead immediately and strongly argued the case for science. “Every step the US makes away from the mandate for science leaves good jobs and opportunities on the table for others,” he said. “Stepping away from that would be an incredibly foolish move.”

Although Kammen feels that Rex Tillerson is an inappropriate and incorrect choice for secretary of state as he is the CEO of a major oil company, he has in the past supported a price on carbon. “That is a door that needs to be pushed on,” Kammen said.

Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University never expected that the topic she studies – climate science – would become “more polarised than gun rights, immigration and abortion”. But science does not require belief. “If you step off a cliff, whether you believe in gravity or not, you’re going down,” she said.

Scientists’ instinct is to say we need more scientifically literate people, Hayhoe explained. But social science has shown that more science-literate people are more polarised on climate change. The real problem, she feels, is how much we prioritize climate change – it’s at or near the bottom of many people’s lists of important issues. People think it’s a long-term problem, or only matters if you’re a “bleeding-heart tree hugger”, or that somebody else, like the government, will take care of it for them.

In the last few weeks, however, Hayhoe said there’s been a huge rise in concern as “suddenly someone else is not going to fix it for us”. She’s also noticed a general rise in concern over the last five to ten years as people have realised climate change is affecting us now.

Hayhoe stressed the importance of connecting with people’s hearts as well as their heads. She used to “start with the science, continue with the science and finish with the science”. But now she begins with an issue that she and the person she’s talking to both value before talking about her concerns about it in scientific terms. Finally, Hayhoe makes sure to bring the conversation back to an inspiring solution. “There is a problem but there are amazing solutions,” she said.

Like Shultz, Hayhoe acknowledged that scientists are all different. “There is a spectrum of engagement,” she said, “where we fall on it is a personal choice.” Hayhoe suggested the Climate Voices network for those willing to speak in public, Climate Feedback for those who prefer to write, and the Union of Concerned Scientists and AGU for those who’d like to participate in civic engagement. Those scientists needing a support group could turn to AGU, Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN) or the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.

Up last, Davidson highlighted that the AGU is in a position of resilience, having built up its public affairs programme and created a geosciences caucus on Capitol Hill. The AGU has members form every single congressional district. Immediately after the election the AGU co-ordinated with 28 other societies on a statement about the importance of science and the need for a science adviser. There’s also a petition on the site for Trump to appoint a science adviser. Next the AGU will step up its Thriving Earth Exchange programme that links scientists to communities to show how science can improve lives. And there are plans to build a storybook (name to be decided) containing examples of traditional storytelling, and perhaps using other media, to show the importance of Earth and space sciences.

Davidson finished by mentioning the open letter from one president-elect to another that he posted to the AGU’s From the Prow blog the previous evening. “I’d love to have your opinion on that,” he said.

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