Innovation has always been dedicated to communicating science to non-scientists. While we aim to communicate research in a way that bridges science and society, we often leave it up to the reader to determine what the research implies. Science is messy, and it is often a matter of opinion how research should inform policy. Examples of this span the breadth of scientific inquiry. While gene technologies offer the potential for unprecedented advances in healthcare, they also raise the specter of the eugenics movements that gripped the scientific community in the early 20th century. Though big data algorithms can lead to better products, data aggregation raises tough questions about privacy rights. Even though research into advanced materials can drastically improve the world, byproducts of production present unsolved challenges of disposal.

Thus, while many scientists (and science communicators) would prefer to remain impartial observers of nature, there comes a time when the science overwhelmingly points to one conclusion, and it becomes incumbent on communicators of science to support these conclusions in any way they can. For example, the science suggests with a very high degree of confidence that our actions are causing global climate change. Unchecked, this change will wreak unprecedented havoc on the global community. Because it is within our power to request that Princeton alter its investment practices to help avoid this disaster, Innovation endorses the Princeton Sustainable Investment Initiative.

The Science

To understand human-caused climate change, we must start with the “greenhouse effect,” which describes how heat becomes trapped in the atmosphere leading to higher surface temperatures. When sunlight heats the earth’s surface, the surface in turn warms the air above it. This heat rises back up in the atmosphere. Certain gases, aptly named “greenhouse gases”, like carbon dioxide (CO2), reabsorb this heat and reradiate it in all directions. Thus, greenhouse gases – like an actual greenhouse – trap heat in the earth’s atmosphere by preventing it from escaping into space.

Human activities have been responsible for releasing excessive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial age. Based on a report by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), humans have increased CO2 concentrations by 40% in just 260 years of industrial activity – barely a blink of eye in the history of the planet Earth. Furthermore, from 1880 to 2012, the global mean surface temperature rose 1.5 oF, with most of this increase happening in the last 60 years[1].

These rising temperatures that result pose an avalanche of problems: melting ice caps, rising sea levels, more extreme weather events, habitat loss, and mass extinctions – to name just a few of scientists’ worst fears. Rising CO2 levels also change the chemical balance of the oceans, causing large-scale ocean acidification and threatening marine life globally. Humans are to blame – but, fortunately, we also have the power to change it.

The Debate

Though the scientific evidence points to humanity as the cause of temperature increase, several viewpoints dispute this claim to different degrees. Some dispute the claim that temperatures have risen at all, calling the recent measured increase as mere noise in the long-term fluctuations of the global mean temperature.While this is possible, we cannot ignore overwhelming scientific evidence simply because it is subject to some degree of uncertainty.. Science can never prove something with absolute certainty, but when a certain threshold of evidence has been met, science can accept a fact as true, barring future evidence. Climate studies have repeatedly shown that the earth is warming and that humans are to blame.

Others claim that the earth’s climate will self-regulate, compensating for rising CO2 levels. For example, some claim that higher temperature could promote plant growth, which would in turn reduce atmospheric CO2 levels. However, the IPCC report determined that this effect was small in relation to the impact of the CO­­2 humanity is emitting into the atmosphere. Though there are plausible arguments against the theory of anthropogenic climate change, the vast majority of scientific evidence presents a clear consensus and call to action.

Consensus

The scientific view on climate change is both clear and nearly universal. In in a 2004 essay published in Science, 75% of abstracts listing “climate change” as a keyword supported the position that climate change was both real and man-made[2]. The remaining 25% took no position, and importantly did not reject it. In 2009, a survey sent to earth scientists found that 82% agreed with the position that humans are causing climate change. When looking at the responses from climate scientists who regularly publish climate change related research, that number jumped to 97%[3]. A study the following year further found that the more scientists published papers about climate change, the more likely they were to find humans the cause. Examining the position of 200 top climate change scientists (measured by number of papers published and the number of times these papers were cited), this 2010 study similarly found that 97% of these experts agreed that humans are causing climate change[4]. Repeated examinations of both published literature and expert opinions have all pointed to the same conclusion. The scientific community has reached a widespread consensus: climate change is occurring, it is caused by humans, and it is imperative that we act against it.

A Call to Action

Innovation believes that it is our duty to inform the public about the science behind climate change. When this science reaches a clear, urgent consensus, it is also our responsibility to advocate for appropriate action. If left unabated, emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases could lead to a potentially catastrophic temperature increase by 2100, resulting in mass migration, social unrest, and (likely violent) conflict. These are just the direct impacts to humanity. Climate change could result in rampant desertification, ocean acidification and even a mass extinction of species. The evidence suggests that emission abatement could prevent such a disaster.

The first step for science and society is to abate greenhouse gas emissions and move towards clean alternatives. The Princeton Sustainable Investment Initiative proposes a first step that the University can take towards this goal. The PSII recommends a framework by which the University will be held accountable for the true costs and consequences of its investment strategies, with particular consideration of the carbon footprint of its endowment and in collaboration with a committee of University students, faculty, and staff. Innovation, as a student science organization at Princeton, has a duty to support such basic policies. The Princeton Sustainable Investment Initiative’s proposal does just that, by recommending a framework by which the University can retool its investment strategies to achieve this goal. It does not claim to propose a specific investment plan, but instead gives the University the flexibility to invest while keeping scientifically valid evidence in mind.

Conclusion

Innovation’s overarching mission has always been to make science accessible to the public. Over the years, we have worked towards that through multiple channels, such as reporting on research done by Princeton professors, hosting speakers, and popularizing science through social media. When we read the proposal, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to engage another channel of science communication through advocacy. We believe that when the evidence points to one inevitable conclusion, it becomes the responsibility of science researchers and communicators to move from observers to advocates. The evidence of climate change has continued to support the conclusions that human actions are leading to surface temperature increases. The Princeton Sustainable Investment Initiative simply asks the University to reflect this incontrovertible evidence in its investment practices. As a Princeton-affiliated organization, it is Innovation’s prerogative to petition the University that supports science research with its funds to ensure that these resources are obtained in a manner sanctioned by research. To prevent what science suggests is an impending climate catastrophe and to ensure a better world for future generations, Innovation believes that it is imperative that the University adopt the Princeton Sustainable Investment Initiative proposal.

References

[1] Thomas F. Stocker, et al. “Technical Summary”. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Ed. by Thomas F. Stocker, Qin Dahe, Gian-Kaspar Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex, and P.M. Midgley. Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY USA: Cambridge University Press, 2013

[2] Oreskes, Naomi. “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change” http://www.sciencemag.org/content/306/5702/1686.full

[3] “Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.” Eos, Vol. 90, No. 3, 20 January 2009

[4] William R. L. Anderegg, James W. Prall, Jacob Harold, and Stephen H. Schneider

“Expert credibility in climate change” PNAS 2010 107 (27) 12107-12109; published ahead of print June 21, 2010,doi:10.1073/pnas.1003187107.

About The Author