A packed house at the Wendell Free Library on Thursday night listened to Ray Bradley, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geosciences and Director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, talking about the state of current scientific research into the world’s warming climate, as well as the chilling story of how a few climate change deniers in Congress tried to put science on trial by indicting Bradley and two colleagues for “fraudulent” use of federal research funding. The latter part of the story is related in Bradley’s book, Global Warming and Political Intimidation: How Politicians Cracked Down on Scientists as the Earth Heated Up (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).
I came away from the talk not sure whether to be depressed or reassured. On the one hand, there was plenty in Bradley’s presentation to feel pessimistic about. He noted that even in the very best imaginable scenario, if all fossil fuel burning were to stop tomorrow, enough greenhouse gases have already been released into the atmosphere over the past 200 years (and particularly since the Second World War) that the world’s climate will continue to warm right through the 21st century and beyond. In other words, it’s too late to reverse what’s already been done–the best we can possibly do is to deal with the consequences and try to stop making it even worse.
It was also depressing to realize how well-funded–and how successful–a relatively small number of nay-sayers have been, and how the seeds of doubt they’ve managed to plant in many people’s minds have taken root. Facing up to the realities of what our energy-intensive way of living has done to the planet is daunting; it’s far easier to demonize the scientists who’ve tried to show us the consequences of what we’ve collectively done. When someone asked during the Q&A what could be done politically, Bradley said he thought something would have to change in American federal politics, where a few people in key positions–like the chairs of Congressional committees–hold an immense amount of power to kill legislation that may have broad support, or that at least deserves a hearing. He pointed out that many other countries have much more readily tackled the challenges of anthropogenic climate change through political action, whereas the U.S. remains gridlocked, at least at the federal level.
On the more reassuring side, he also noted that good things were happening at other levels of government, including in Massachusetts, whose governor he praised highly. Rosie Heidcamp, director of the Wendell Library, also pointed out that many people in the room were involved in local efforts relating to energy use, and that there are strong local networks thinking about these issues and working to make their communities more resilient and responsive to upcoming challenges. It was good to be reminded of that!
And the other thing that reassured me had to do with Bradley’s own stance as both a “disinterested” scientist and someone who is clearly speaking out about climate change in many public and private forums. I say “disinterested” because he stressed that the work of climate science is solely to measure what’s happening and to try to account for it, not to recommend policy or suggest solutions. What makes science reliable is that it’s not driven by personal or political agendas, no matter what the nay-sayers would have us believe. But like NASA’s James Hansen, Canadian geneticist and broadcaster David Suzuki, and others, Bradley clearly finds the evidence alarming enough that he feels compelled to share what he knows and to try to bridge some of the gaps between scientists and non-scientists, academia and industry, the convinced and the unconvinced. It was pretty amazing to get to hear someone so important in the climate change debate speaking at my own small-town library, and while there was plenty to be depressed about, I think overall I came home feeling optimistic about what we might be able to do if we really listen to what people like Ray Bradley are telling us.
~ Cathy Stanton, Wendell