Climate Scientist to Politicians: It’s Time to Face the Facts

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As wildland fires continue to rage around Northern California, they're charring the landscape, forcing evacuations and straining firefighting budgets, but extreme events like this may also be driving public opinion toward more action on climate change. And Anthony Barnosky hopes to catch that wave.

He heads the Barnosky Lab at the University of California Berkeley, which studies "global change." He's the author of Heatstroke and two other books about the climate challenge (one forthcoming in the spring).

Anthony Barnosky studies the effects climate change will have on the environment at UC Berkeley.

Recent polling shows that Californians are not just taking climate change seriously, but two-out-of-three believe that they're already seeing the impacts. Barnosky agrees -- and he senses (if you'll forgive the pun) a sea change.

"I think the general public has finally tipped over the hump," Barnosky told me in a recent interview at KQED. "Over the past few years, we've been seeing and living climate change," he said, referring to extreme weather events and encroaching seas. "We've seen water pouring into the New York subway system."

Barnosky also cited the 24,000 wildfires so far this year in the western U.S., along with heat waves and drought.


"Everybody's experienced some climate change in the past few years," he said. "What hasn't happened yet is for that majority feeling, if you will, to percolate up to our political leaders. So I think we're on the cusp of that being able to happen."

Of course, it's been happening in California. In May, Barnosky and more than 500 scientists joined Governor Brown in signing a "consensus statement" affirming the climate crisis and calling for more action. And Brown continues to fret publicly about the lack of urgency in many quarters of government.

"There is a complete disproportion between the knowledge about and the magnitude of climate change and what it's gonna do to our way of life, and our response," Brown told an audience at the July Intersolar conference in San Francisco. "The response is feeble compared to the challenge."

The "Scientific Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century" (temporarily hosted by a related website at Stanford), written by Barnosky and 15 other scientists, is the centerpiece of a new push by scientists to advance the climate policy agenda and other sustainability issues. Since its May unveiling with the governor, the number of scientists endorsing it worldwide has about doubled, and it's now open for anyone to sign on.

"It's scientists trying to bridge that gap," Barnosky explained.

A recent statement from the 61,000-member American Geophysical Union amped up its position on climate change, saying flatly that, “humanity" is the major cause, and that ”rapid societal responses can significantly lessen negative outcomes.”

But, Barnosky laments,"We're tired of talking just to other scientists. Somehow the message has not made it out in a way that has resulted in meaningful action."

Crossing the great divide from science to "activism" is a leap that many scientists just aren't comfortable making and I was wondering how Barnosky reconciles that with projects like his.

"What we're trying to do is say, 'Here is the sound science. Do with it what you will but know that this [increasingly severe climate impacts] is going to happen if you don't act on it.' So it's all about making the conscious choice and knowing what the risks are."

Some surveys suggest that Barnosky has his work cut out for him. A national Gallup poll in March showed almost the mirror image of California, with nearly two-out-of-three respondents saying they didn't see climate change as a threat in their lifetimes -- about the same number as ten years ago.

"It takes about a generation to change these things," said Barnosky. "I would hope that we are on the cusp of that change, if we keep the pressure on, so to speak."

Barnosky says that "pressure" will include a major web presence and outreach through social media, starting this fall, and adds that while there is still time to act, "decision time is now."