Scientists advise and governments govern. Long portrayed as a clear division of responsibilities, it is increasingly clear that this is a weapon for silencing criticism from those most aware of the crises we face.
When the scientists in ‘Don’t Look Up’ discover that a meteor is bearing down on Earth, their first instinct is not to tweet nor appeal to the media, but to engage the President of the United States. And? They are told to ‘Sit Tight and Assess.’ Regardless of one’s opinions of the movie, that single scene is an acute summary of 30 years of the intersection of climate science and policy – tens of thousands of publications, six major IPCC reports (each comprising 100s of pages and thousands of references), a multitude of smaller UN and International climate risk assessments. A historical amount of sitting tight and ‘assessing.’
It would be unfair to claim that those phenomenal efforts, a very tiny bit of which includes my own 30-year scientific career exploring the nature of past and ongoing climate change, achieved nothing. There has been recognition and investment, and it now seems likely that the ‘Business as Usual’ scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions have become ‘Worst Case’ scenarios. But we are far from avoiding the meteor, far from enacting policies that will prevent catastrophic climate change, a sixth mass extinction, the death of millions if not billions and the collapse of our civilisation. We are far from avoiding an asymmetrically unjust collapse that will disproportionately impact the poorest and most marginalised in our society. We are far from avoiding a racist and classist collapse, a genocide by indifference.
Our pleas for action have been met with nods, incremental steps and recognition of our labour, and for many that has been sufficient to slake our thirst for action, sufficient to convince us that we are doing all we can. But if we listened closely, those incremental actions inhabited a wider, more conservative worldview characterized by dismissive and condescending comments about what is “realistic”. We would have understood that the range of policy options is dictated not by what is necessary but constrained by what the ruling class perceives as possible. We would have further understood that the realm of possible system change is even further constrained when defined by those who profit most from inaction – not just politicians and their electorates and corporate lobbyists, but also the media, think tanks, pundits, authors, schools, research institutes and universities. And ourselves. Because we are part of that world, academic elites working in privileged institutions, we have always been predisposed to accept those realistic truths and fearful of losing the small amount of political and cultural influence we did enjoy.
And so many of us, including me, operated under the prevailing dogma: Scientists provide evidence; governments make policy. And the scientist who crosses that line is derided as an activist, their objectivity is questioned and the small amount of influence they might wield is lost.
This constraint under which we laboured is superficially logical. We are defined by our expertise; do we not lose credibility if we venture beyond it? If we want our own expertise to be valued, should we not respect the expertise of others?
But isn’t that argument rather convenient? Are we compromising or are we complicit? Surely, we were never so naive as to believe that any government would acquiesce to radical system change without a fight?
In any case, these are old debates, old constraints, old rubicons we should have long-since crossed. Too many of us had accepted these truths for too long, with too little action, and we are now too angry. As individual environmental scientists and as a community, we have come to realise that the lines were never lines at all and the scope for expert activism, although still treacherous terrain, is far more nuanced with possibility than we had allowed ourselves to believe.
Stay in your lane
One of my primary responsibilities as Cabot Director was to build links to policy makers. We assembled an Advisory Board with representatives from government agencies and chaired by the former UK Chief Scientist Sir John Beddington; we hosted workshops with MPs, MEPs and their advisors; we built strong links with Bristol City Councillors and both of our elected Mayors. I am proud of the work I did with four different parties to inform and empower climate action, including two declarations of Climate Emergencies, and I am proud of how those links have allowed my colleagues to contribute to local, national and international policy.
These partnerships also offered powerful advice on how to build partnerships and build trust. We were given practical advice that I still value. We were advised to engage the Opposition Party because they had more capacity to build new relationships than the Party in power and far busier governing (and they will not be in opposition forever). We were advised to avoid working with single issue organisations, because no amount of expert advice could ever influence them. We were advised to understand when to engage and when it was too late (invariably after the government had already planted its flag).
However, other advice should have revealed the limits of our influence and the limits of our approach. I was told – repeatedly – that the role of scientists was to provide expertise and never to advocate for action and certainly not any specific action. I was told not to offer scientific advice but to be prepared to provide it when asked. I saw criticism met with defensiveness; I saw experts who challenged government policy dismissed and derided for breaking some unspoken pact (see David Nutt). I saw electoral politics dictate policy rather than leaders attempting to build consensus. Politicians were keen to meet with engineers promising technological innovation but dismissive of social scientists wishing to discuss justice and institutional colonialism. But mostly I saw entrenched neoliberal conservatism. Faces blanched when we discussed zero growth approaches or anything with a whiff of anti-capitalism. I was told not to work with Caroline Lucas, because she was a ‘loon’; and yet here we are seven years later, and everything she has ever said is now mainstream thinking, precursors to Climate Emergency declarations and Green New Deals.
And this conservatism is embedded in all aspects of academic practice, no matter what one might read about the lefty university. Academic research is now encouraged to reach beyond the ivory tower, engaging with society and achieving impact. In fact, ‘impact’ is now enshrined in UK research via both research funding and the Research Excellence Framework. But not all impact is equally valued…. A series of papers that helps the oil and gas sector discover new reserves of destructive carbon would be celebrated as world leading impact; a series of papers that led to the demise of that same sector never would be. Academic engagement is rewarded for enriching or preserving the establishment.
Scientists advise and governments govern.
This was a deception. Academics have always been activists. Universities have always been centres of revolution. And not just amongst the Marxist scholars or the humanities; activism was persistent across the entire academic spectrum.
Something perverse happened in the relationship between research and policy in the 90s and early part of the 21st century. First came a narrative that Universities were ‘ivory towers’, disengaged with citizens and their cities, noodling away on topics of limited interest, comfortable in our labs and libraries untroubled with the challenges facing society. That was true to an extent, but never as true as the narrative either within or beyond universities and research centres. Nonetheless, it was a sufficiently compelling narrative – especially when paired with researchers’ and their funders’ persistent quest for government funding – to create a new drive of engagement and impact. That was fantastic. It recognised and rewarded a whole range of academic activities, including community engagement efforts that were disproportionately delivered by marginalised groups in the sector.
But it came at a price. It came with rules and expectations. It came with norms that were profoundly conservative and anti-revolutionary.
Our expertise was valued – when needed, when requested, at the “pleasure and convenience of the King”. And in that context, activism was at best counter-productive and at worst unseemly and destructive to your credibility. As such, very few scientists (James Hansen, Kevin Johnson) were actively challenging government inaction on climate change.
There are alternative forms of activism – how the UK Climate Change Act, COP21 and Institutional Pledges changed the landscape
Over the past ten years, climate scientists have become increasingly activist.
I do not know if that is frustration and fear; or a new generation of more engaged scientists. I would argue, however, that the very first step towards that change arose from the persistence of providing evidence and engaging policy makers. Despite all of the failures of the climate movement to bring about real change, we have had one major success. We have forced all of the governments of the world to acknowledge that Climate Change is a Threat and forced them to promise to act on it. In the UK, the Climate Change Act of 2008 was passed nearly unanimously with cross-party support and committing the UK to an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050; in 2018, in one of Theresa May’s last acts, that ambition was increased to 100% reduction. At COP21 in Paris, nearly every country in the world committed to keeping warming below 2C and aspiring to keep it below 1.5C.
This activism has continued in local organisations, accelerated by COP21, a multitude of disasters, the worrying 1.5C IPCC report of 2019 and of course Student Strikes and other protests (but more on them later). In my own immediate sphere of influence, coalitions of staff and students led to the University of Bristol pledging to carbon neutrality, prioritising environmental teaching and research, divesting from fossil fuels (the first UK HEI to achieve this) and declaring a Climate Emergency. The City of Bristol was the first city to declare a Climate Emergency and has been joined by hundreds of others around the globe. Organisations like Preventable Surprises have challenged inconsistent shareholder governance with respect to climate action, while others like CERES have built global coalitions of businesses pledged to action.
Words. Pledges. Promises. Blah blah blah.
They have not resulted in action – or at least adequate action. That is true. But they have changed the rules of engagement. Greta Thunberg is not advocating for any particular policy; I’m sure she has strong opinions but she refuses to share them. Instead, she demands that nations act according to the promises they have made, and she holds them accountable for when they do not.
The same is true for climate scientists. See… in the past, scientists would have been scolded for demanding a particular global warming target. We were advised to provide the evidence of sea level rise, extreme weather, coral bleaching and food security crises, but it was the job of politicians to tension those risks with need to address other challenges, the setting of priorities, and the costs of climate action.
But they have now done it. The UK government has committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and that is a target to which we can and must hold them accountable. We can bring scientific rigour to proposed solutions, such as excessive carbon offsetting, and we can bring our expertise to stop projects inconsistent with this target. We can join lawsuits to prevent airport expansions and we can lobby to stop peat extraction. We are ‘staying in our lane’ of expertise, not venturing into the sticky and complicated realm of politics, and simply holding the government to account to its own loudly stated ambitions. And we can do the same with our cities and our employers.
This has made some forms of activism easier. But has it empowered the type of activism that we need? Are we still afraid? Have we really broken free from the system or are we merely enjoying an incremental increase in our latitude to speak and critique?
I am not sure what sort of activism will be most effective to bring about transformative change. I certainly cannot speak to where you will be most effective in your activism. All of us, but especially those from marginalised groups will have to navigate a fraught legal landscape with care, especially as states bring in increasingly draconian anti-protest laws. Those who do have political influence – real influence – should recognise what a rare commodity that is; they should neither casually discard it nor should they waste it. The climate movement must be a thriving mosaic of approaches, with each leveraging the successes of the others to increase cultural, popular or political capital and drive a Just Transformation.
What I can say is that the climate and ecological crises are so profound and so unjust that there can be no constraints on non-violent activism other than your own.
What now going forward
I don’t know. But here are some lessons I have learned over the years.
We must find what activism is most effective, is most genuine, for each of us – but be self-critical when doing so. Given that any activism can be justified as part of a diverse movement, it would be easy to succumb to an easy path and retrospectively justify it. Some of us DO need to engage governments, some of us must be IN government. But let us not be complicit in our own deception. After all, engaging politicians is difficult but activism is hard. You sacrifice more than your time, but also your reputation, job prospects, even your freedom. Sometimes the logical choice is the right choice; sometimes it is just the easy choice.
But you do have to make a choice. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot be the vizier to the king as well as the court jester. We cannot participate in civil disobedience and still serve on government advisory boards.
At the same time, climate scientists have been relentlessly advocating for change for decades and do deserve some credit. We must have genuine conversations with ourselves about next steps, but we’ve earned our prickly defensiveness when others dismiss our motivations and our (few) successes. It is infuriating that the catastrophic failures of a multitude of governments, at every scale, in every nation, over decades, have been attributed to a generation of scientists who did their best and certainly did far more than most. Moreover, such attacks are bad tactics. They are often driven by ego. They are divisive. And worst of all, they miss the great opportunity for leveraging complementary approaches to collective benefit the movement. Our past efforts have not been enough, but they have created the foundation on which we build today.
Activist scientists must also be humble and remember that we are not experts on what is effective. We might have opinions and we might have anecdotal concerns from our own experiences and interactions. But we are not experts on radical and just social transformation. This humility should have been self evident, but we now have no shortage of evidence for it. We did not know what would be effective when we allowed ourselves to be bound by others’ rules of engagement, when we allowed ourselves to be captured by governments and by extension the lobbyists and special interests who influence them. Because we are not experts on how policy is made, we were tricked. So perhaps rather than deciding who and how to engage, we should join those who do know.
Finally and most importantly, I would urge you to consider that maybe we should stop partnering with governments and start partnering with communities. And I implore all of us to bring a decolonial, equity-centered and anti-racist approach to our research, advice and activism; what an astonishing failure it would be to wean ourselves off of the power of fossil fuel energy by transitioning to a green economy that replicates all of its extractive and exploitative injustices.
Ultimately, any movement is a mosaic of complementary (and sometimes competing) factions. Given that Climate and Ecological Action will require one of the greatest social transformations of the past millennium, our movement will likely comprise the most complex, diverse, radical and surprising mixture of actors in history. It will involve those centered on justice and labour; technology, infrastructure and finance; protesters, marchers, disruptors and enablers; community leaders, unions and civic organisations; lawyers and scientists; plumbers and electrician, gardeners and farmers; politicians – yes, still politicians, and often from unexpected political homes; those filled with hope and those with despair.
In finding our voices, we will also discover that we are not just scientists. We are people. And we fit in not just one but many of those categories. And our activism will find its voice in unexpected ways.