Collaboration and communication: how science and environmentalists can fight climate change together

| 20th June 2017
Dashing the introverted stereotype, the scientific community donned lab coats, painted placards and chanted in the streets. Marches took place in 600 cities across the world, from Manilla to Amsterdam
Whether from environmentalists, media or politicians science and its values are often under attack. In response, the scientific community has started a global Pro-Science Movement. Key agendas of the movement include environmental awareness and action on climate change, writes LUCY EJ WOODS
Scientists finding a "joint language" they can use to communicate with environmentalists, would also aid climate science literacy

Science: the global endeavour of humans to understand the universe. People carrying out this endeavour - scientists - are defined by the UK Science Council as: "someone who systematically gathers and uses research and evidence, making a hypothesis and testing it, to gain and share understanding and knowledge."

The intent to share scientific research is a crucial distinction; it defines science as a public good, as much about method as it is about values.

At a pro-science march in London, climate scientist Chris Rapley, say science is about valuing "investigation and internationalism."

Marching in Berlin, Jurgen Kurths, a physicist and mathematician at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research says "science is international...We collaborate with China and Russia and the UK. We are all international scientists; there is only one physics and one climatology, not, say, an English one and a German one."

Rapley and Kurths marched because they felt the values of investigation and international collaboration are under attack.

The US is eradicating environmental science, the UK is "sick of experts", and turning to climate change deniers for leadership. Be it pulling out of the Paris agreement, or renewable energy cuts, "there is a strong move in the English-speaking world against rationalism," says Rapley, "we must defend against it."

This need to defend rationalism has morphed into a global ‘pro-science' movement. Dashing the introverted stereotype, the scientific community donned lab coats, painted placards and chanted in the streets. Marches took place in 600 cities across the world, from Manilla to Amsterdam. Kurths says he couldn't remember a time before the nuclear weapons demonstrations in the 1950s when scientists united to protest in such large numbers.

Taking place on 22 April, the marches deliberately coincided with Earth Day. Many placards and chants focused on climate change - with environmentalists marching alongside climate scientists.

The pro-science movement "speaks to the ethos" of environmental organisations like Greenpeace, says Paul Johnston, principal scientist at Greenpeace Research Laboratories.

Grassroots environmental group, Friends of the Earth (FoE) backs "the purpose" of the pro-science movement "100%" says Mike Childs, head of science, policy and research. This is because FoE frequently works alongside scientists, "on a case-by-case make sure we get our facts right," says Childs.

As well as working on projects together, there are shared values between environmentalists and scientists; FoE is "aligned with the value of international collaboration" and has "always been informed by scientific research, together with the values of social justice and intergenerational justice," says Childs. Greenpeace is also "committed as an organisation to working collaboratively with people across the world," says Johnston.

Seeing eye to eye

But while there are good relationships and shared values, "that doesn't mean we see eye to eye with all scientists," says Childs, "not all scientists consider the social and economic impact of their research."

There are disagreements on a multitude of issues between scientists and environmentalists, from fracking and pesticides, to nuclear power and GMOs.

Whether caused by hypes of ‘world-saving' technology, corporate sponsored science or vested interests, scientific disputes should not be ignored, says Childs, "we mustn't pretend that ‘science' has one clear view."

Using GMOs as an example, Childs says although GMOs are scientifically proven to be safe for human consumption, there are still important questions environmental groups ask, such as, "who has control of our food chain?"

These differences in approach seem to balloon into conflict most often when scientific work is translated into policy. Like when the UK government championed fracking on the basis of one scientific paper (which has since been discredited), or when US scientists caution themselves on researching geoengineering, in fear that their work is misused to justify delayed action on climate change. Scientists "need to inform policy, but they also need to stand up and say if a policy is not informed by the best science," says Johnston.

Scientists need to lose the "naive", "ivory tower" perception of not getting involved in politics, as "once you've informed policy, you are involved in the political process...[science] defacto becomes political, you can't get away from it...Value-free science doesn't exist," says Johnston.

Rapley puts much of the confusion between environmentalists and scientists - and politicians and the public - down to communication. "The classic way science delivers its message is doomed to fail," says Rapley.

"We need to engage people and engage emotions; generally, scientists strive to eliminate emotions, but the subject of climate change can be alarming and scary. The story of climate change has clearly raised anxiety and cognitive dissonance, which has then been [politically] exploited."

While there is "an obligation to speak up" about scientific findings such as polar ice melting, says Rapley, scientists should also offer their opinions publicly, as "an off-duty comment."

"The role of science in society is to offer positive answers to positive questions. Not to use scientific authority to muddle statements. If I'm asked what is dangerous climate change, for example, I can't answer as a scientist [as danger is subjective], but I can give my own opinion, as a human," says Rapley.

To continue raising the public's awareness and literacy of environmental issues, both movements have a role to make their work "accessible and truthful," says Johnston. "How does their work relate to the public? What captivates [the public]?" Environmentalists and scientists, Johnston says, should be repeatedly asking these questions to avoid some of the "nightmare" of explaining the nuances within climate science.

Scientists finding a "joint language" they can use to communicate with environmentalists would also aid climate science literacy, says Kurths.

One barrier Johnston identifies as halting this joint language is a reluctance from mainstream academics to be associated, or funded, by environmental groups such as Greenpeace. Scientists should reconsider, and "do more work" with environmentalists, says Kurths.

Both scientists and environmentalists need to "look more deeply at the interests related to environment and climate change," to identify overlapping values, says Johnston. Collaboration, on the basis of shared interests, could lead to more scientific solutions and greater political will in the fight against climate change.

If neither the environmentalist movement, nor the pro-science movement is working to identify and communicate based on shared values, says Johnston, "people don't realise this synergy exists, and then they don't exploit it."

This Author

Lucy EJ Woods is a freelance journalist specialising in energy and environment reporting. Currently based in London she has reported on environmental issues from Russia, Mongolia, Indonesia, Nepal and the Philippines and has been published in various titles, including The Guardian, Climate Home, Mongabay and many others. You can find more of her work at:, or follow her on Twitter: @lucyejwoods



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