Climate scientists are becoming climate teachers

#ClimateEdNowClimate scientists are a nerdy group of people; we love to carefully comb through data to better understand our planet. We also love to share our findings with our colleagues. We like to challenge each other, embracing good ideas and discarding the bad. We also are working hard to become better climate teachers. Climate scientists around the world are spending more and more effort to teach the general public about the Earth’s climate, how it is changing, and what we can do to help.

Every scientist that I know initially got into the field because they wanted to understand how nature works. Scientists share a deep sense of awe when we uncover new physical processes. There is something magical about finding a deep understanding about the universe. But with any subject, it is important to apply our knowledge to make the world a better place. Climate science gives us an excellent opportunity to use our understanding to both inspire awe and improve the world.

But if we want to use our science to improve the world, we have to convince our fellow humans to join with us, to pull in a common direction, to preserve this world for future generations, and to understand what is at stake. And for this endeavor, scientists need to engage in outreach. We need to explain, in an accessible and interesting way, how the climate affects humans and society, how we are changing the climate, and what we can do about it.

I personally take this need very seriously. I, and many of my colleagues, work hard to find ways to share our findings with the general public. We also listen to people and try to understand their perspectives. At the same time, we owe it to our audiences to be candid and honest, to tell it like it is, without equivocation.

While this is all fine and good, scientists are humans too (this fact may surprise people). We have the same anxieties and fears, hopes and desires, as everyone else. You have probably heard that one of the most common fears among people is the fear of public speaking. I assure you that many scientists share that same fear. And the fear is compounded because all too often, radical elements of society really give scientists a tough time. Whenever I appear in the media, I expect to get a few crank calls or emails. As I have gotten older, these cranks don’t bother me so much. But for a younger, less established scientist, things are different.

Climate science gives us an excellent opportunity to use our understanding to both inspire awe and improve the world.

What scientist, young or old, wants to go through a fearsome process like being on television, radio, or a podcast, only to get hate mail? It isn’t a very appealing bargain; but we do it anyway.

Will it help you get tenure? Nope.

Will outreach help you get promoted? Not on your life.

Will it help you find funding for your next climate research project? Ha ha ha, that is funny.

Will outreach aid in getting your scientific paper through peer review? Not a chance.

It might surprise people to know that not only do scientists want to do outreach (despite all these downsides), but they actually spend a lot of unpaid time and energy doing it. I am impressed by my colleagues, especially the younger ones, for bringing such enthusiasm and vigor to this unsung job.

The good news is that the importance of communication is now being recognized by the most prestigious scientific organizations. Many organizations now acknowledge the important roles that scientists have in public communication and are recognizing the best communicators. Whereas a few decades ago, the best scientific communicators were looked down on by the rest of the scientific community (think Carl Sagan, for example), now the best scientific communicators are extolled. And as scientists get better at communicating, and as we attract more talented people who can do both good science and good communication, the public will notice.

So next time you see one of my nerdy colleagues on television, or next time you read an interview of them in a newspaper or on a website, just remember something. That nerdy scientist probably didn’t get into the field to become a master in communication. In fact, if these young scientists knew how much communicating they would have to do, some would no doubt switch career paths. That nerdy scientist is trying her or his best to be as accurate and interesting as possible. Finally, that nerdy scientist would, if she or he could, thank you for listening to what they have to say. Often, they are trying to explain why and how to save the planet. We should listen.

That is a good way to end, with a thanks.

Read other essays from our #ClimateEdNow series.

John Abraham
Short Bio

John Abraham is a professor of thermal sciences at the University of St. Thomas, in Minnesota. He studies oceans and how they are warming. He also works on clean energy solutions in the developing world — he has started a water pasteurization company that provides drinking water to vulnerable populations.