Can Earth Survive Without Scientist-Citizens?

arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus)
An arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus) pup in the Pribilof Islands, St. Paul Island, off the coast of mainland Alaska in the Bering Sea. Juvenile mortality can reach 90% (from starvation and predation) during their first year when lemming abundance is low. Climate change threatens arctic fox survival by reducing the snow depth that lemmings depend on for shelter and insulation. (Image: Mike Boylan/USFWS)

When scientists start giving talks called “Is Earth F***ed?”, it’s safe to say we’ve entered a new era.

Last week, at the largest annual gathering of earth and space scientists in the world, geophysicist Brad Werner caused quite a stir with his decidedly unscholarly framing of the question on everyone’s mind.

Werner’s talk at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco was inspired, he said, by friends who were "quite depressed” about earth’s future and our inability to “respond appropriately.” (His talk starts at 25 minutes.) To get a sense of what might change our trajectory toward planetary disaster, Werner, director of the Complex Systems Laboratory at UC San Diego, modeled interactions between human social processes and environmental systems.

His model predicts that a capitalist culture, operating with few restraints to maximize short-term gains, prevents us from taking the longer view needed to prevent environmental destruction. Simulations show that unfettered economies will quickly burn through natural resources. Factoring in regulation, which constrains but doesn’t change the dominant economic culture, simply delays the damage. The only thing that might tip the balance toward a sustainable future, Werner says, is resistance, if people push back against the status quo. But he hasn’t run the simulations to test this idea yet.

Werner urged his colleagues to start thinking about sustainability as a geophysical problem and to lend their expertise to studying the complex dynamics of human-environmental interactions: “It’s not something that we can just leave for the social scientists or the humanities.”

arctic report card NOAA, 2012, greenland
A rare, nearly ice-sheet-wide melt was recorded by satellites for the first time in 2012. The melt season was the longest it has been since satellite observations began in 1979. Melting ice contributes to sea level rise through direct, mass loss, and melt water can lubricate the underside of glaciers and accelerate glacier flow, further contributing to sea level rise. Surface melt changes the shape of ice and snow crystals, making them less reflective. (Source: Arctic Report Card, 2012, NOAA)

But is that enough? If we’re really pushing earth toward an irreversible tipping point, as a group of top scientists warned last summer, should scientists be doing more than research? Do scientists have a responsibility to step outside the academy and do whatever they can to set us on a more sustainable trajectory?


Jane Lubchenco says yes. Just a half hour before Werner laid out his somber predictions for our future, Lubchenco, under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, revealed the findings of her agency’s Arctic Report Card at an AGU press conference. Noting that dramatic physical changes—including record low snow and sea ice levels and unprecedented ice sheet surface melting—are triggering biological changes such as less productivity at the bottom of the food chain, Lubchenco showed just how bleak things have already become. (See video below.)

The next day, she traveled across the bay to tell her academic colleagues at UC Berkeley what they can do about it.

In a longstanding (if mostly unspoken) tradition, scientists often look askance at colleagues who spend time engaging the public and government officials in science, thinking they do so at the expense of good science. Lubchenco believes that type of thinking is a luxury we can ill afford.

Laying out the litany of “wicked problems” we face—climate change, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification, and freshwater depletion to name just a few—Lubchenco urged scientists to move beyond simply documenting environmental destruction to creating solutions. “That means engaging with society and thinking differently about what our roles as scientists are,” she said.

Jane Lubchenco NOAA administrator
NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco tells academic researchers at UC Berkeley that in the face of "wicked problems" like climate change and biodiversity loss they no longer have the luxury of just doing science they think is cool. (Photo: Barry Bergman)

“We scientists, whether we’re wearing government hats or academic hats, have a responsibility to society in exchange for public funding,” she said. That means not just “doing things we think are cool but really wrestling with some of these big problems.”

The old divisions between basic science and applied science no longer describes the world we live in, Lubchenco says.

Most researchers think their work is over when they share the knowledge they gain with their colleagues in meetings and peer-reviewed journals. But that’s just a first step, in Lubchenco's view. She urged her Berkeley audience to share what they’ve learned with the public, policymakers, and decision makers and to make the effort to understand how they can design studies to make sure their research makes a difference. They need to think about how their research can guide public officials’ approaches to regulating and managing ecosystems, she said.

For Lubchenco, it’s all part of being a responsible human being. It's incumbent upon scientists, she said, “to renew our social contract in light of the environmental challenges that face us.”

If enough scientists take her advice, maybe, one day, we’ll be able to answer “no” to Werner's question.