An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences

“Witnessing Climate Change” features sixteen personal narratives about climate-related work by professionals from multiple fields, backgrounds, and generations who feel a responsibility to share what they know and take action.

An audiobook of the Fall 2020 issue of Dædalus on “Witnessing Climate Change” is now available through Audible.

On Becoming Witnessing Professionals

I came to view my work with Hiroshima survivors in 1962 as not only a scientific study but a form of bearing witness to what the bomb did to human beings in that city. I tried to bring professional knowledge and experience to that effort, to become what I later called a witnessing professional. Nuclear and climate issues interacted in that early study, and have continued to be inseparable for all of us. I draw upon examples of witnessing professionals over the course of our struggles with these two planetary threats. In each case, they had to expose and combat the malignant normality, the dangerous prevailing assumptions and narratives, of their time. In that way, these professionals have contributed to important social movements. They have also deepened–as we too can–the ethical dimensions of professional work.

What Is the Social Responsibility of Climate Scientists?

Do scientists have a responsibility to act affirmatively to ensure that our findings are known, understood, and put to use to protect our fellow citizens, even if it means expanding our activities beyond the field and the laboratory? I argue that scientists have a sentinel responsibility to alert society to threats about which ordinary people have no other way of knowing. However, the same expertise that makes a scientist an appropriate sentinel in one or several domains almost necessarily makes them inexpert in other domains. I believe that we should exercise restraint when asked to intercede in areas beyond our proximate expertise.

Author Naomi Oreskes

Witnessing for the Middle to Depolarize the Climate Change Conversation

Witnessing for the middle seeks to depolarize contentious public issues and to create effective coalitions. It reveals neglected facets of a problem, clarifies the stakes, reduces hype, and facilitates the engagement of people largely on the sidelines. Regarding climate change, many forms of middle-building are under way, notably including the scenario-making that reveals alternative pathways to some specific goal. This essay explores two additional vital middle-building conversations, both focused on the goals themselves. One conversation addresses how to learn faster about how our planet can harm us. The other conversation focuses on the various ways that we can harm ourselves while pursuing nominal solutions to climate change. The two themes are complementary. The more plausible the risks of dangerous climate change, the stronger the case for risky solutions.

The Professional Ethics of Witnessing Professionals

Professionals have an ethical obligation to bear witness to climate change. They should report, warn, criticize, and lobby to bring attention to the existential threat that climate change poses. But they also have an obligation to respect the knowledge that is the basis of their authority to witness. Witnessing carries risks to this professional authority. Witnessing professionals should avoid letting bias distort their advocacy, simplifying their statements excessively, overplaying the consensus in the field, neglecting their own conflicts of interest, and claiming authority beyond their areas of expertise. To witness ethically, the professional should advocate responsibly.

An Environmental Lawyer’s Fraught Quest for Legal Tools to Hold Back the Seas

The law is the principal mechanism by which society resolves disputes and implements policies. For more than forty years, I have worked to use the law to address environmental problems, initially by trying to stop projects that would increase pollution and harm communities. But there are limits to what the courts can do without explicit direction from legislatures. Climate change is a prime example. Some have seen litigation as a silver bullet, but at least so far that has not been the case. Elections matter more than lawsuits. Until and unless elections bring to power a president, a Congress, and local officials who will take the necessary measures, litigation is needed to inhibit those who will try to move backwards, spur on those with good intentions, help implement the policies set by wise Congresses past, and continue the quest for redress for victims. Well-crafted laws can also lead the way to solutions.

Racism as a Motivator for Climate Justice

In the wake of the recent unjustifiable deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and several other African Americans at the hands of police, we have witnessed persistent and widespread protests against systemic racism, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed African Americans and Latinos at two to three times the rate of Whites. Racism is undeniably an evil, pervasive, destructive force in our society, yet it can also be a great motivating force. This essay is a personal story of how being the subject of racism led one person to acquire and leverage his professional privilege to help create and change institutions to act on climate and environmental injustices while countering the systemic racism that he witnessed and experienced in childhood.

From Air Pollution to the Climate Crisis: Leaving the Comfort Zone

While climate change poses existential risks to human health and welfare, the public health research community has been slow to embrace the topic. This isn’t so much about a lack of interest as it is about the lack of dedicated funding to support research. An interesting contrast can be drawn with the field of air pollution and health, which has been an active and well-supported research area for almost fifty years. My own career journey started squarely in the latter setting in the 1980s, but transitioned to a major focus on climate and health starting around 2000. The journey has been punctuated with opportunities and obstacles, most of which still exist. In the meantime, a large body of evidence has grown on the health impacts of climate change, adding more urgency to the imperative for action. Institutionalization of climate and health within the federal regulatory and funding apparatus is now needed if we are to make the transition to zero carbon in ways that maximize health and equity benefits.

Climate in the Boardroom: Struggling to Reconcile Business as Usual & the End of the World as We Know It

How does one witness to businesspeople about climate change? Climate change is a problem for the collective and the long term, whereas business often requires a ruthless focus on the individual and the quarter. Climate change is an ethical catastrophe whose solution almost certainly requires a profoundly moral response, but talk of morality in the boardroom is often regarded with profound suspicion. Reconciling these tensions has forced me to navigate between worlds in an ongoing attempt to persuade businesspeople that solving climate change is both an economic and a moral necessity, and that the purpose of business is not only to make money but also to support the institutions that will enable us to build a sustainable world. This has not always been easy.

Task Force Climate Change: A Patron Saint of Lost Causes, or Just Ahead of Its Time?

This essay explores the origins of the 2009 U.S. Navy Task Force Climate Change (TFCC) from the perspective of its founder and initial director. The director’s background is described briefly, along with events and actions of Navy leadership that led to creating the TFCC. The essay states five lessons learned within the context of setting the direction and tone for change in a large organization and examines five areas in which the TFCC arguably has made a positive difference to the U.S. Navy. The essay provides an overview of U.S. Navy and national climate-related actions after the author’s tenure as director of the TFCC, and concludes by addressing climate change risks within the context of current efforts to understand and manage adverse impacts from the COVID-19 virus.

Seeing Is Believing: Understanding & Aiding Human Responses to Global Climate Change

This essay traces my academic voyage from studying human perceptions of financial risk to the realization that the human response to climate change is a more fundamental and profound challenge. Along the way, I came to realize that different academic disciplines need to be recruited for two purposes: 1) to tell an accurate story about the motivations and processes by which environmental (and other) decisions get made by stakeholders that range from policy-makers in the public and private sector to the general public; and 2) to determine and implement effective and feasible ways of changing the physical, institutional, and social environment to help myopic decision-makers achieve long(er)-term objectives. I see my voyage as an exercise in applied hope, resisting the constraints that disciplines and academia try to place on scholars and helping others to do so as well, by both example and institution-building.

Author Elke U. Weber

Less Talk, More Walk: Why Climate Change Demands Activism in the Academy

As climate scholars, it is our professional responsibility to engage in climate politics. First, we need to engage in radical scientific analysis: we must ask questions that get at the root of climate change. Second, we need to plant a flag: we must be explicit about what our findings indicate we should do. This should go further than laying out the options; we must indicate which among them is preferable and why. Third, we must engage broadly, both across disciplines and beyond the academy. Many will object to the notion of engaging publicly as advocates, but the climate crisis demands nothing less. Choosing not to have a view, in the name of preserving our expertise, is an abdication of our responsibility, as both scholars and teachers.

A Conversation

Rafe Pomerance has been called “the original climate change warrior.” He was profiled in Nathaniel Rich’s 2018 New York Times Magazine article and subsequent book, Losing Earth. At the moment when much of the science was known but there was no awareness in political circles, Pomerance was crucial in shaping recognition by government officials, policy-makers, and the public that climate change is a crisis. In two conversations, on May 10 and August 5, 2019, we talk about his path into climate work; the sequence of his experiences as an advocate, strategist, organizer, and negotiator; his work with Arctic 21 and ReThink Energy Florida; his political assessment of the point to which we have come; and his experience as a “witnessing professional.”

The Coral Is Not All Dead Yet

Reportage and essays are the first and most immediate way that citizens learn about climate change science, its causes and consequences, and the impacts that industry and consumerism have on ecosystems. For fifteen years, I have been reporting and writing stories on these topics. Growing up, I was drawn to the environment because I was fascinated by the diversity, the endless variety, of life on Earth. But early in my career, in my first reporting job for a newspaper in the Caribbean, I also saw the disastrous toll that contemporary civilization was taking on the natural world–specifically on coral reefs. And yet, the climate crisis was not widely reported as such in those days. That experience, and the dearth of mainstream climate reporting at the time, led me to seek out some of the leading thinkers on the subject, and made climate one of the central subjects of my work. Most often, in the field of journalism, the phrase “bearing witness” refers to war journalism, while my work, for years, had often felt like science translation, connection, and storytelling. But more recently, as the ecological and societal impacts of a changing climate have grown more extreme, widespread, and apparent, while greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, climate journalism has, too, become a form of bearing witness.

Slow Disaster in the Anthropocene: A Historian Witnesses Climate Change on the Korean Peninsula

Despite their seeming reluctance to engage in the politics of the now, historians have a crucial role to play as witnesses to climate change and its attendant social injustices. Climate change is a product of industrialization, but its effects are known in different geographical and temporal scales through the compilation and analysis of historical narratives. This essay explores modes of thinking about disasters and temporality, the Anthropocene, and the social production of risk–set against a case study of the Korean DMZ as a site for historical witnessing. Historical methods are crucial if we are to investigate deeply the social processes that have produced climate change. A “slow disaster in the Anthropocene” approach might show the way forward.

Let Me Tell You a Story

I’ve spent my time caring for the Life-sources of Land, Air, and Waters–the LAW of Life. It began by being touched by the Sea and the story of my mariner grandfather. It went on to raids to fight environmental crime syndicates in the Philippines and on to the court of law. The Court is a good venue to light a STAR: to tell a Story, put the issues on the Table for orderly discussion, spark Action, and arrive at a Resolution. I founded the SEA Camp (Sea and Earth Advocates) to train children to care for the Sea and Earth and, later, founded the School of the SEA. Twice–in 2008 and in 2013–I saw the School erased by an extraordinary typhoon, a foretaste of the climate crisis. I’ve realized that when you use the law and science to change the mind, it can change tomorrow. But when you change the heart, it is forever. In the midst of the ongoing climate and COVID-19 crises, I believe that we can change the story of the world if we change the storyline. “The seeds of goodness live in the soil of appreciation for goodness.”