SAN FRANCISCO—How should climate scientists react to a president-elect who calls global warming a “hoax?” How much should they prepare for his administration? And should they ready themselves for the worst?
These questions loomed over the fall conference of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) this month, the largest annual gathering of Earth scientists in the world. How the scientific profession chooses to answer them may decide whether the United States can summon the political will necessary to finally vanquish climate-change denialism—or whether it will continue to muddle through on the issue, not really attending to it, as it has for the past three decades.
The meeting revealed a quasi-generational split. Many scientists continue to act like aloof and methodical professionals. They want to provide sound data and quietly advocate for good policies. When the profession is threatened, they will advocate for funding, but they will also respond to Trump like academic actuaries, sighing deeply and then getting on with their work.
Another group recognizes that a key fact of modern scientific understanding—that the Earth’s climate is warming, thanks to the industrial burning of fossil fuels—has unfortunately become a central political issue of the era. They see it as their duty to correct the record, and they will respond to attacks on scientific fact as activists would: by organizing protests, educating the public, and shaming their local governments and national representatives into action.