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GRAPPLE | With Issues and Ideas

Scientists Fight Back | Spiraling Down | Woe Is Us | As the World Warms |A Short History of the Nose |
Up to Speed

A rapid response team of experts takes on climate-change deniers.

Illustration by Victor Juhasz
The last great hope was that when the icefields and glaciers started to melt, polar bear habitat to disappear, insurance premiums and sea levels to rise, and coastal storms to intensify, Americans would wake up and smell the methane off-gassing from the warming arctic tundra. Faced with the facts on the ground, pragmatic Americans surely would take the dangers of climate chaos to heart and act before "worst case" became reality.

Well, the climes they are a-changin', but we are now traipsing into the twenty-teens with woeful carbon controls, little hope for better ones on the horizon, and a new Congress determined to undo whatever gains have been made. America's climate blindness hasn't been helped by scientists who've been reluctant to emerge from their ivory towers to defend their methods and conclusions in public. But that, says John Abraham, an engineering professor at Minnesota's University of St. Thomas, is changing too.

Last November, Abraham and his colleagues launched the Climate Science Rapid Response Team, a group of 100 (and counting) scientists who are "willing and ready" to answer media questions or go mano a mano with climate deniers on talk radio, TV, or anywhere else the subject is debated.

"There's a recognition," Abraham says, "that a window of opportunity to do something effective is closing. That's motivating scientists to engage."

The American Geophysical Union, the country's largest organization of earth scientists, has also launched a "Climate Q&A Service" to quickly provide authoritative information to journalists. Some 700 Ph.D.-level volunteers take shifts answering media questions.

Susan Joy Hassol, who runs Climate Communication, a Boulder, Colorado, organization that coaches scientists in communication skills, says she's seen a sharp upswing in the number who take public education seriously. "Communication with the public can't be extra credit anymore," she says. "It has to be part of the grade."

But responsive, on-message science can only do so much to change public policy. "This question is not, Do we stabilize [atmospheric CO2] at 400 parts per million or 420 parts per million?" Hassol says. "It's, What kind of people are we?" Philosophers, not scientists, will have to answer that one. —Gordy Slack

NEXT: Spiraling Down

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