Ecologist New Voices: Cara Augustenborg

Cara Augustenborg is one of our New Voices contributors - and she has something to say to the scientific societies still pussy footing around the issue and urgency of action on Climate Change
Cara is one of the Ecologist's New Voices contributors. An Irish-American environmental scientist and climate communicator living in Ireland, she lectures in climate change at University College Dublin and blogs and vlogs as ‘The Verdant Yank'. Here she challenges all environmental scientists to demand action on Climate Change from the politicians still turning a blind eye
It is a challenge to maintain scientific integrity while also pushing for political action on climate, but we no longer have enough time left to allow risks or fear to keep us quiet in the corner

For a split second in December 2015, the world celebrated the moment when 195 countries agreed to take action on climate change and keep the Earth's average surface temperature within 1.5 degree Celsius of warming compared to our pre-industrial average.

This 1.5 degree target was, of course, almost impossible to reach and the methods to get there remained undefined, but for a single second it appeared geopolitics and science had finally reached a consensus to address climate change.

And whilst we were still projected to exceed 3.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century - and still faced dire consequences as a result - the Paris Climate Agreement was worthy of a toast for at least heading in the right direction after 21 years of negotiations.

Six months later not much has happened with respect to global climate action and our window of time to act is running out, so it's hardly surprising that 31 of America's leading scientific societies have felt the need to send a letter to Congress last month, reminding them climate change is occurring and having "broad negative impacts on society". However, the brevity of their letter and uninspiring request simply to "work with Congress to address the challenge of climate change" is a painful sign of how far we still have to go to implement adequate climate solutions.

The words of these 31 societies mirrored those spoken 28 years ago by NASA's Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Dr James Hansen, when he testified before the US Senate, drawing the connection between human activities and a warming climate and warning of the increased probability of extreme weather events as a result of climate change. It took the Senate a further 27 years after Dr. Hansen's testimony to even acknowledge climate change was happening - and they still fall far short of agreeing it is caused by human activities.

Raising awareness about climate change in Congress was avant-garde when James Hansen did it 28 years ago, but this recent letter by America's scientific societies is just sad. With 182 climate deniers in the US Congress, the odds this letter will have any impact on US politicians is slim to none.

Which begs the question, why bother writing such a letter?

It is not the first time scientific societies have penned such a request. Eighteen of them wrote a nearly identical letter to Senators in 2009. But the language in both letters is passive. The authors offer their support to Congress but fail to make any real demands of elected representatives. And given that the world can emit carbon at its current rate for less than five more years and still have a chance of keeping below the 1.5 degree C target, their kind offer of being "prepared to work with you" does not convey the urgency of the need for immediate action.

It is a challenge to maintain scientific integrity while also pushing for political action on climate, but we no longer have enough time left to allow risks or fear to keep us quiet in the corner

Scientists are taught to be measured in their language and stay apolitical to maintain their objectivity, but it's becoming harder for many of us to just sit back when we observe our natural systems in peril and to go on going passively about our work. Twenty years after his Congressional testimony, James Hansen dramatically crossed that divide between research and activism by getting arrested outside the White House protesting the Keystone XL pipeline and participating in numerous other direct actions to address climate change.

I took my own leap from science to activism following an Arctic expedition in 2008 when I witnessed the impacts of climate change first hand and realized I could no longer sit idly by waiting for politicians to act on the science that was already so obvious and urgent and in the public domain (which means we can all access it). It is a challenge to maintain scientific integrity while also pushing for political action on climate, but we no longer have enough time left to allow risks or fear to keep us quiet in the corner.

Bill McKibben of once said of climate change, "If you are keeping your powder dry for a special occasion, this is the occasion."

The scientific societies writing to Congress confirmed McKibben's assertion in more technical language, stating "There is strong evidence that ongoing climate change is having broad negative impacts on society, including the global economy, natural resources, and human health... The severity of climate change impacts is increasing and is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades."

It is now or never for scientific societies to make clear demands of our politicians and publicly confront those who fail to respond to the scientific evidence they present.

Politicians are inherently distracted by issues that only last as long as their election cycle, and the media both sides of the Atlantic is busy filling the airwaves with the noise of Donald Trump, Brexit and the Kardashians. It is far too easy for the public and politicians to ignore the urgency of climate change. Most people (and politicians) still do not realize that, if we are serious about solving climate change, we have to keep 80 percent of our known fossil fuel reserves in the ground and can no longer explore for any further oil and gas. But if our esteemed scientific societies fail to communicate this science adequately to the public and do not call politicians out on their failure to address climate change in a scientifically credible way, no one else will.  

Scientific societies have a duty to act for the benefit of society as a whole. To effectively achieve that duty, they must do so at a scale that is representative of the issue at hand. The current global political landscape is evidence that, despite the Paris Climate Agreement, climate and politics remain at odds. The next time our scientific societies decide to put their hat in the ring to act on climate, they need to throw their full weight behind it in a manner that has some potential to make a difference and break the climate-politics divide. Polite letters are no longer enough for such an occasion.

This Author:

Dr. Cara Augustenborg has her own website Follow her on Twitter @CAugustenborg or Facebook at