A resolution for 2017: Speak out for science

Happy New Year! Our colleagues at the UW-Madison Center for Limnology just posted this New Year’s Resolution, and we were moved to echo it here (with their permission, of course).

In 2017, We Resolve to Speak Out For Science.

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Installation by the street artist, Bansky, at London’s Saatchi Gallery. Picture: Jeff Felten, Pictify.

We think anyone would agree that 2016 was a pretty bad year for civil discourse and just, well, the overall delivery of information. There was so much shouting and campaigning and name-calling. Our news feeds were full of articles created by organizations with axes to grind – both liberal and conservative. Real news, the kind produced with reporting and fact-checking, was dismissed as “biased,” diminishing the work that goes into trying to keep the public informed. If you wanted people to dismiss something out of hand, you simply branded it “political.”

In 2017, perhaps we can move the other way. For our part, we resolve to speak up for science. To stand by the data and information and results that scientists spend so much time carefully collecting and analyzing. We resolve to do our small part in helping the discourse reach a place where observable facts are just that – facts. Not opinions, not biased, not part of the games that politicians play.

Let’s start with something we can all agree on, no matter what party you affiliate with – thermometers aren’t political. When the weatherperson calls for highs in the 90’s, you don’t dismiss it as “liberal main stream media” misinformation – you get out your t-shirts and sandals. If your kid spikes a temperature of 105 (Fahrenheit, not Celsius!) you don’t shake your fist at the digital readout and mutter something about scientific conspiracies – you call a nurse.

The same is true about global warming. Temperatures around the world are going up. That’s not debatable. There is no angle to it. Scientists have simply observed what the thermometers are telling them – on average and in most places around the globe, the temperature is rising. A weather buoy near the North Pole registered temperatures almost 50 degrees above average this Christmas. That buoy doesn’t vote. It doesn’t care who is paying for its maintenance. It is simply reporting the fact that temperatures are rising.

Yet, ever since Al Gore took that unfortunate turn on the stage and delivered those inconvenient truths, global warming has been inexorably painted as political. A convoluted conspiracy that scientists use to demand funding, or something “alarmists” (whoever they are) use to push their “agenda” (whatever that is), or, in the most recent example, a Chinese hoax.

Here in Wisconsin, the agency responsible for managing the resources we so cherish – our wildlife, fishes, forests and lakes – just removed any mention of climate change from its website. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources replaced this –

“Earth’s climate is changing. Human activities that increase heat-trapping (‘greenhouse’) gases are the main cause.”

With this:

“As it has done throughout the centuries, the earth is going through a change. The reasons for this change at this particular time in the earth’s long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

As one of those academic entities, we can confidently state that the “reasons for this change at this particular time” are NOT being debated. They are known. It is an observable fact that human activity has greatly increased the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Greenhouse gases are not political. Carbon dioxide and methane and other such gases are simply good at preventing heat from escaping our atmosphere. And their release into the atmosphere has been greatly increased by humans burning both wood and petroleum products to warm our homes, drive our cars and produce our energy.

There is no place for politics in these simple facts.

The real place for politics in global warming is in discussions about HOW we should address climate change. What can and should we do about it as a society?

Our country is already dealing with climate change. Cities along the Atlantic coast are seeing tidal flooding on calm, sunny days. In the West, wildfires burn hotter and more frequently across more land. Here in Wisconsin, we are seeing more frequent heat waves and extreme rain events and the ice on our lakes continues to form later and melt away earlier. Climate change is here and it is happening.

Here at the Center for Limnology [and the WSC project, too!], we have conducted research that indicates climate change will have big impacts on Wisconsin’s water quality, fisheries and more. Real work should now be going into how to we plan on protecting those resources or, at least, mitigate those impacts. Continuing to pretend that man-made global warming isn’t happening only weakens our ability to respond.

Much has been written lately about the need for scientists to join in the public discourse and better engage the public. In 2017, we’re taking that to heart. We resolve to continue to produce the best science possible about our freshwater resources so that we, as a species, can make the best decisions possible about how to manage them. We resolve to continue to strive to make science engaging, fun, and inspiring to our audience, so that they can share in the wonder of the world around us and better understand the ecosystems they call home.

And, last but not least, when we see science being misrepresented or misconstrued, we resolve to say so.

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