Posted by: eengelh | December 6, 2007

Scientists Call for Climate Action

Filed by Erika Engelhaupt

somerville_blog.jpgScientists put in their own two cents on climate policy at today’s meeting. More than 200 prominent climate scientists from around the world have signed a statement calling for negotiators in Bali to set aggressive new targets for curbing greenhouse gases.

The scientists say that a post-Kyoto treaty must be negotiated by 2009 and should aim to reduce emissions by at least 50% below 1990 levels by 2050. Global emissions must begin to decline within the next 10-15 years, they say, in order to stabilize atmospheric greenhouse gas levels at 450 parts per million (in CO2-equivalent concentration) and keep the global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. The statement and a list of scientists who signed it is available at

Leading climate experts were invited to sign the statement, according to Richard Somerville (photo above) of the University of California San Diego, who was in Bali along with scientists from Australia and the U.K. to present the statement. Somerville is a climate modeler and coordinating lead author for Working Group I of the IPCC (science and impacts). “The IPCC does not advocate policy,” he said, so this statement gave scientists a chance to give their informed opinion on policy by allowing them to speak in a private capacity.

The declaration was released at a press conference in Bali under the auspices of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Afterwards, Somerville told me that he has not interacted with the U.S. delegation in Bali.

The U.S. delegation held its own press conference soon afterward to answer general questions about the negotiations. When asked to comment on the scientists’ statement, lead U.S. negotiator Harlan Watson brushed it aside, saying “I don’t know who the scientists are who signed it.” He then emphasized that the U.S. is “fully on board” with the recent IPCC report but that the IPCC does not advocate policy. The reporter came back with the comment that this statement was signed by leading scientists and does in fact advocate policy, to which Watson replied that he would not endorse something he had not yet read.

When asked whether the delegation was influenced by today’s news that the Lieberman-Warner bill passed a vote in the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, Watson said “We will not alter our posture here.” Asked then whether Australia’s ratification of the Kyoto Protocol changed anything for the U.S., Warner replied, “No, we’re not changing our opinion.”

It’s no surprise that the U.S. delegation is not turning on its heels at this meeting, but today’s press conferences served to underscore the sense of increasing U.S. isolation on the international climate scene.

For me, the sound of crickets has always been a lonely sound, so it seemed somehow fitting during the U.S. presentation when crickets in the plants onstage started to chirp.



  1. As you know Erika, news of the declaration was censored here in the U.S. by journalists who felt that it said nothing new and therefore deserved no attention. Meanwhile, the editors of the N.Y. Times saw fit to run a story about the CIA destroying two videotapes of Al Qaeda operatives with a screaming headline above the fold on page one. I think the story deserved that treatment. But I could easily argue that CIA hanky panky of this kind is nothing new and therefore deserves much less prominent coverage.

    That would be stupid, obviously. And so is the nearly unanimous decision by U.S. news outlets to utterly ignore the climate declaration.

    So today, the United States is almost totally isolated on the climate change issue, as you point out. And U.S. journalists are almost totally isolated in how they’ve covered this issue, since journalists in Europe, Canada and Australia have given the declaration ample coverage.

  2. To expand on Tom Yulsman’s point, Seth Borenstein of AP covered the declaration, but few others in the U.S. press gave it much attention.

    In retrospect, I don’t think I should have used the phrase “two cents” in my own post, because it could come across as minimizing the news. I certainly didn’t mean it that way. In fact, at the time I posted this I fully expected the scientists’ declaration to be splashed across U.S. pages the next day.

    I thought it was important news because I talk to scientists about climate change all the time, and rarely are they willing to comment on policy. Often they say that they are not experts on policy, and this is true and often appropriate, but there is something different about this declaration.

    Scientists spoke out this time, and I know it wasn’t easy for many of them. This statement is about scientists leaving their comfort zone to make policy recommendations based on their scientific understanding. They state an endpoint or goal for policy, which science can inform, but not how to get there. The “how” goes beyond science and involves decisions about fairness, development goals, and myriad other issues.

    The COP meeting is mostly about the “how” at this point, with a fairly small contingent questioning the basic science. I want to highlight the role of science at this meeting, but I find that it is perhaps not the ways science is used at the COP that are as fascinating as seeing how this issue is moving beyond the science.

  3. What’s interesting to me as a scientist who works directly with policymakers, is that it is fair game for all kinds of people who do not have policy expertise to comment on policy as long as they are not scientists. Business leaders, economists, religious groups, and random citizens on the street are fair game. They are legitimate commentators on climate change policy because they are world citizens. It is intersting that scientists forego this right as citizens in order to protect the apparent objectivity of their science. It’s an ironic sacrifice, given that among all those in society who might comment, environmental scientists tend to be much better educated on the issue than average, even though few know much about policy. What does society lose from the disproportionate silence of this knowledgeable group? I am glad to see these prominent scientsts exercising their rights as both competent professionals and concerned citizens to have their say.

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