What professional responsibility do scholars who don’t study climate science have to their students and others who look to them for knowledge about climate change and potential solutions? How to respond to such questions in terms of the nature of the problem, its implications, and approaches for mitigating and adapting to the problem?
Science of Climate Change (nature of problem)
Regarding the science of climate change itself, based on their developed scientific expertise 97% of well-published climate scientists agree that “anthropogenic greenhouse gases have been responsible for “most” of the “unequivocal” warming of the Earth’s average global temperature over the second half of the 20th century,” according to a peer-reviewed study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Another peer reviewed study, this time of 3,146 earth scientists finds a similar result: 90% respond “risen” to the question “When compared with pre-1800s levels, do you think that mean global temperatures have generally risen, fallen, or remained relatively constant? and 82% answer Yes to “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”
To emphasize, these are the views of truth-seeking scientific experts who study various aspects of climate change and subject their analyses to rigorous peer review and criticism within scientific journals and in research lectures.
Implications of Climate Change (impact of problem)
Regarding the implications of rising mean global temperatures on human life, there’s been widespread research on impacts to food and water supplies, human health, economic growth, conflict and security, disease, etc. For example, a recent study of “Climate Change Impacts on Global Food Security” in Science results in a set of precepts, including
- Climate change impacts on food security will be worst in countries already suffering high levels of hunger and will worsen over time
- The consequences for global undernutrition and malnutrition of doing nothing in response to climate change are potentially large and will increase over time
- Food inequalities will increase, from local to global levels, because the degree of climate change and the extent of its effects on people will differ from one part of the world to another, from one community to the next, and between rural and urban areas.
Overall, and according to the latest 2014 IPCC report: “Based on many studies covering a wide range of regions and crops, negative impacts of climate change on crop yields have been more common than positive impacts (high confidence).” IPCC goes on to summarize that: “Increasing magnitudes of warming increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and challenging irreversible impacts”
Importantly, some effects of climate change are impacting human life now, including increased coastal flooding, longer and more damaging wildfire seasons, more frequent and intense heat waves, forest death in the Rocky Mountains, and changing seasons.
Mitigating and Adapting to Climate Change (solutions)
Regarding solutions, arguments can be made for a variety of approaches, including moving away from fossil fuels by pricing the CO2 externality, technological ingenuity, dietary changes away from beef and toward local and organic foods, carbon sequestration, adoption of low-carbon energy sources, enacting regulations, etc.
Two Fundamental Tenets of Professional Responsibility
So what is the professional responsibility of non-climate science scholars in the face of the above knowns and unknowns? I propose two basic principles:
P1 Clarity in communicating consensus of climate scholars and what their research says: most of global warming is being caused by increased concentrations of carbon emissions from human activities such as the use of fossil fuels.
P2 Clarity in communicating the scientific understanding that impacts of climate change are occurring now, and the range and intensity of impacts is likely to increase and be more negative than positive in the future, creating significant risks.
Below, I provide two example statements from professors who are not climate scientists that illustrate alignment and misalignment with the two principles.
1. Roger Pielke Jr., professor of political science in the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado.
Roger uses a simple and easy-to-understand “bathtub model” of carbon dioxide buildup on page 9 of his book “The Climate Fix,” clearly fulfilling P1. He goes on to say that “Many, if not most, scientists believe that the impacts [of accumulating carbon dioxide] will be on balance negative and significant,” in line with P2.
These statements align with P1 and P2 and indicate professional responsibility.
2. Jaana Woiceshyn is an associate professor of strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.
Jaana has recently written that “there has been no significant global warming in the last century” and “CO2 is not a significant cause of temperature fluctuations”.
These statements contradict P1 and do not indicate professional responsibility.