Should Climate Scientists Be Climate Activists? One Tells Us ‘We Can’t Wait Any Longer’ For Action


“I think there would certainly be some discussions across the university about how I was representing them in what cases and how I was speaking up,” she said. 

Moon said she’s just as frustrated as Caffrey.

“Scientists have been raising a red flag in the best ways we know for decades, and we haven’t seen action,” she said. “It makes me sad, and I think it’s at a point where I certainly ask myself the question of what am I going to do in an emergency and how am I going to react?”

One of Caffrey’s big concerns is how scientists aren’t encouraged to reach out to the general public about their work. She said the community talks among themselves, and published papers get shared with colleagues. She argues the issue is that scientists are paid to do the work and teach.

“That takes up 60 to 70 hours of your week. We’re not getting paid to do outreach to the public. It would be really wonderful if our universities could start issuing contracts that would include a public component.”

Moon agrees, and said, “we are at a point where we are not appropriately recognizing the importance and rewarding the activity of bringing science outside the scientific sphere.”

Moon said that she makes an effort to speak to a wide range of audiences, and she “brings them the science.”

“Because right now, the science, the physical changes happening in our earth system are alarming. There’s no need to make up a story beyond today’s science to bring a real shock to people about what it is our human choice is about our future path.”

Caffrey said she signs these letters and declarations, like the one in support of Extinction Rebellion, to try and reach lawmakers, to show them that “people are outraged, that the people want action.”

Moon hopes the letters she signs reach those who are only mildly concerned about climate change.

“I’m really interested in taking the attention of those people who just have this at the periphery and bringing it more centrally into their vision, and having those people begin to talk to their neighbors and their friends and their representatives,” Moon said.

Caffrey never imagined she’d be forced into the “political arena,” but now feels a responsibility to speak out.

“Now that I’m here, I’m happy to use my platform to speak out in ways that I know other researchers might have their hands tied a little more.”

Moon said that the “politicization of climate science” makes her feel “bullied and pushed around.”

“I’ve written proposals in which I’ve avoided using the phrase climate change because I’m well aware that Congress could say, ‘Hey, we want to see these proposals.’”

Instead, Moon said she uses phrases like “changes in temperature,” “increasing temperature” and “risks.”

“It feels really inappropriate to have to consider that,” Moon said. “Feeling this pressure to fit into a political understanding of science certainly I think has driven more scientists to paying attention to the political process and considering how it is that they maybe have to speak up about their science.”

On an earlier CPR News report about the Greta Thunberg-inspired Global Climate Strike in Denver, a reader left a comment that essentially asked, “If this movement is about the science, then where are the scientists?” Moon finds comments like that “frustrating, but I don’t necessarily fully blame that person for having that perspective.”

In an age of online harassment, Caffrey understands why a scientist would choose not to be more public about their research.

“I’ve been called an entitled millennial, I’ve had comments made about my looks,” she said. “As a woman in science, you get a lot of those. I’ve had letters sent to my home… sometimes it feels like you’re putting not only yourself but your family at risk by doing it.”

Caffrey said she’s fighting for stronger scientific integrity protections. She said Moon’s example of having to change her language “shouldn’t happen.”

“We call that self-censorship. You shouldn’t have to worry about censoring your language,” Caffrey said. “I would like scientists to be able to just focus on the science and not worry about losing their jobs or becoming pariahs within the scientific community if they chose to speak out about what’s happening with their research because of political influence.”

Moon pointed out that, right now, science is caught between politics and scientific truth.

“Scientists are doing our best to muddle through that and continue the alarm”

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