Climate Change and the Integrity of Science, Again

10/20/2010 07:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Five months ago, Science magazine published the following Lead Letter, signed by 255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences addressing attacks on the integrity of climate science. Given the continuing onslaught of false and misleading information being perpetrated by climate deniers, and given the apparent deep ignorance or misunderstanding of climate science by practically all Republican and a disturbing number of Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate this fall, I repost the Letter here.

Climate Change and the Integrity of Science

(Science Magazine, May 7, 2010)

We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely "proves" anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely "certain" before taking any action, it is the same as saying society "should never take action." For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial - scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That's what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of "well-established theories" and are often spoken of as "facts."

For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today's organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution). Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category: there is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.

Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers, are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific assessments of climate change, which involve thousands of scientists producing massive and comprehensive reports, have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected. But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change:

1. The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

2. Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

3. Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth's climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

4. Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

5. The combination of these complex climate changes threaten coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

Much more can be, and has been, said by the world's scientific societies, national academies, and individuals, but these conclusions should be enough to indicate why scientists are concerned about what future generations will face from business-as-usual practices. We urge our policymakers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels.

We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them. Society has two choices: we can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.


[255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences]

[The signers are all members of the U.S. National Academy of Science, but are not speaking on its behalf. Names are in alphabetical order.]

Adams, Robert McCormick

Amasino, Richard M

Anders, Edward

Anderson, David J

Anderson, Wyatt W

Anselin, Luc E

Arroyo, Mary Kalin

Asfaw, Berhane

Ayala, Francisco J

Bax, Adriaan

Bebbington, Anthony J

Bell, Gordon

Bennett, Michael V L

Bennetzen, Jeffrey L

Berenbaum, May R

Berlin, Overton Brent

Bjorkman, Pamela J

Blackburn, Elizabeth

Blamont, Jacques E

Botchan, Michael R

Boyer, John S

Boyle, Ed A

Branton, Daniel

Briggs, Steven P

Briggs, Winslow R

Brill, Winston J

Britten, Roy J

Broecker, Wallace S

Brown, James H

Brown, Patrick O

Brunger, Axel T

Cairns, Jr John

Canfield, Donald E

Carpenter, Stephen R

Carrington, James C

Cashmore, Anthony R

Castilla, Juan Carlos

Cazenave, Anny

Chapin, III F, Stuart

Ciechanover, Aaron J

Clapham, David E

Clark, William C

Clayton, Robert N

Coe, Michael D

Conwell, Esther M

Cowling, Ellis B

Cowling, Richard M

Cox, Charles S

Croteau, Rodney B

Crothers, Donald M

Crutzen, Paul J

Daily, Gretchen C

Dalrymple, Brent G

Dangl, Jeffrey L

Darst, Seth A

Davies, David R

Davis, Margaret B

De Camilli, Pietro V

Dean, Caroline

DeFries, Ruth S

Deisenhofer, Johann

Delmer, Deborah P

DeLong, Edward F

DeRosier, David J

Diener, Theodor O

Dirzo, Rodolfo

Dixon, Jack E

Donoghue, Michael

Doolittle, Russell F

Dunne, Thomas

Ehrlich, Paul R

Eisenstadt, Shmuel N

Eisner, Thomas

Emanuel, Kerry A

Englander, Walter S

Ernst, W, G

Falkowski, Paul G

Feher, George

Ferejohn, John A

Fersht, Sir Alan

Fischer, Edmond H

Fischer, Robert

Flannery, Kent V

Frank, Joachim

Frey, Perry A

Fridovich, Irwin

Frieden, Carl

Futuyma, Douglas J

Gardner, Wilford R

Garrett, Christopher J R

Gilbert, Walter

Gleick, Peter H

Goldberg, Robert B

Goodenough, Ward H

Goodman, Corey S

Goodman, Morris

Greengard, Paul

Hake, Sarah

Hammel, Gene

Hanson, Susan

Harrison, Stephen C

Hart, Stanley R

Hartl, Daniel L

Haselkorn, Robert

Hawkes, Kristen

Hayes, John M

Hille, Bertil

Hökfelt, Tomas

House, James S

Hout, Michael

Hunten, Donald M

Izquierdo, Ivan A

Jagendorf, André T

Janzen, Daniel H

Jeanloz, Raymond

Jencks, Christopher S

Jury, William A

Kaback, H Ronald

Kailath, Thomas

Kay, Paul

Kay, Steve A

Kennedy, Donald

Kerr, Allen

Kessler, Ronald C

Khush, Gurdev S

Kieffer, Susan W

Kirch, Patrick V

Kirk, Kent C

Kivelson, Margaret G

Klinman, Judith P

Klug, Sir Aaron

Knopoff, Leon

Kornberg, Sir Hans

Kutzbach, John E

Lagarias, J Clark

Lambeck, Kurt

Landy, Arthur

Langmuir, Charles H

Larkins, Brian A

Le Pichon, Xavier T

Lenski, Richard E

Leopold, Estella B

Levin, Simon A

Levitt, Michael

Likens, Gene E


Lorand, Laszlo

Lovejoy, Owen C

Lynch, Michael

Mabogunje, Akin L

Malone, Thomas F

Manabe, Syukuro

Marcus, Joyce

Massey, Douglas S

McWilliams, Jim C

Medina, Ernesto

Melosh, Jay H

Meltzer, David J

Michener, Charles D

Miles, Edward L,

Mooney, Harold A

Moore, Peter B

Morel, Francois M M


Moss, Bernard

Munk, Walter H

Myers, Norman

Nair, Balakrish G

Nathans, Jeremy

Nester, Eugene W

Nicoll, Roger A

Novick, Richard P

O'Connell, James F

Olsen, Paul E

Opdyke, Neil D

Oster, George F

Ostrom, Elinor

Pace, Norman R

Paine, Robert T

Palmiter, Richard D

Pedlosky, Joseph

Petsko, Gregory A

Pettengill, Gordon H

Philander, George S

Piperno, Dolores R

Pollard, Thomas D

Price Jr. Buford P

Reichard, Peter A

Reskin, Barbara F

Ricklefs, Robert E

Rivest, Ronald L

Roberts, John D

Romney, Kimball A

Rossmann, Michael G

Russell, David W

Rutter, William J

Sabloff, Jeremy A

Sagdeev, Roald Z

Sahlins, Marshall D

Salmond, Anne

Sanes, Joshua R

Schekman, Randy

Schellnhuber, John

Schindler, David W

Schmitt, Johanna

Schneider, Stephen H

Schramm, Vern L

Sederoff Ronald R

Shatz, Carla J

Sherman, Fred

Sidman, Richard L

Sieh, Kerry, Nanyang

Simons, Elwyn L

Singer, Burton H

Singer, Maxine F

Skyrms, Brian

Sleep, Norman H

Smith, Bruce D

Snyder, Solomon H,

Sokal, Robert R

Spencer, Charles S

Steitz, Thomas A

Strier, Karen B

Südhof, Thomas C

Taylor, Susan S

Terborgh, John

Thomas, David Hurst

Thompson, Lonnie G

Tjian, Robert T

Turner, Monica G

Uyeda, Seiya

Valentine, James W

Valentine, Joan Selverstone

Van Etten, James L

Van Holde, Kensal E

Vaughan, Martha

Verba Sidney

Von Hippel, Peter H

Wake, David B

Walker, Alan

Walker John E

Watson, Bruce E

Watson, Patty Jo

Weigel, Detlef

Wessler, Susan R

West-Eberhard, Mary Jane

White, Tim D

Wilson, William Julius

Wolfenden, Richard V

Wood, John A

Woodwell, George M

Wright, Jr Herbert E

Wu, Carl

Wunsch, Car

Zoback, Mary Lou