Nobel Prize winner explains why scientists shouldn't be 'table-banging activists' on climate change

Virginia Burkett is the chief scientist for climate and land-use change for the U.S. Geological Survey and is among the Nobel Prize-winning authors of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's fourth assessment report. She also contributed to the upcoming Working Group II section of the fifth assessment report, as well as to three U.S. National Climate Assessment reports. Her research over the past two decades has focused on sea-level rise and climate change impacts on coastal communities and ecosystems.

ClimateWire sat down for an exclusive interview with Burkett during the National Council for Science and the Environment's Building Climate Solutions conference, held this week in Washington, D.C.

ClimateWire: You said something interesting recently about how scientists shouldn't be advocates. Could you say more about why you believe this?

Burkett: As a scientist, I think you lose credibility if you become a table-banging activist that tells policymakers what to do. I was a policymaker once; I was director of wildlife and fisheries for the state of Louisiana. I didn't want a scientist telling me when to open shrimp season or how many ducks to allow that fall. I wanted the scientist to give me the data and tell me the consequences of one decision versus another, and there's a difference.

CW: But there has been some discussion about how scientists' way of communication doesn't tend to raise enough public alarm about climate change.

Burkett: One of our faults is the lack of ability to communicate. No. 2, we're too conservative. When you bring experts together around a table and you're to make a decision, say, about corals and ocean acidification or bleaching, there's a minority in the literature that says maybe corals can adapt. Then the bulk of the literature says, "No, we've got a problem; there's going to be a die-off of corals that won't be replaced." Trying to reach a consensus, automatically you're introducing an element of crafting something together that everybody has to agree to that maybe eliminates the ends of the spectrum of what's possible or plausible.

I think we need to try to convey the information so that it translates the science for anyone who asks. We ought to be willing to do that as scientists. It's a public trust -- particularly if you work for an agency like the USGS. That's why we as an agency don't encourage our scientists to be advocates for any policy or management decision, but we do encourage our scientists to talk about science. We need to be policy relevant, not policy prescriptive.

CW: Do you sometimes feel that when you get to the policymakers, your findings are falling on deaf ears, or ears that are at least resistant to what they are hearing?

Burkett: A couple of times that's happened, like with a congressman a few months ago. He said, "Well, the science is still out on this." And I said, "Have you read the reports?" What I do is try to educate them. I always felt when I was managing fish and wildlife, if the fishermen had the same information I had, and knew what the outcome was, they'd probably make the same decision that we were making in the department.


And I believe that about climate change. I believe if everybody was working from the same, basic set of facts, even though it's very complicated, that eventually people will do the right thing. Maybe that's too optimistic on my part, but that's been my experience in working with resource managers. If you all share the same basic science, then it is a common language.

CW: You formerly directed the Louisiana Coastal Zone Management Program -- could you tell me a little more about how your experience in that position brought you into the climate change science sphere?

Burkett: Across the low-lying coast of the Gulf of Mexico, we were seeing the loss of wetlands and barrier islands, the retreat of shorelines, an increase in salinity in the estuaries -- all these things together. And then we read the latest science about sea-level rise, and we started to put together a picture. Sure enough, you can almost project the changes that we were seeing based upon the changes we knew were going on in the environment. That really piqued my interest in climate change science.

I remember back in the late 1980s, we were just starting to hear about climate change. The first IPCC report was about to come out. I really didn't understand or believe that humans were actually influencing atmospheric chemistry to the degree that it was affecting the temperature. So I started reading, and the more I read, the more I started to put together a picture of the consequences.

The number of climate change publications has increased 100-fold since the 1980s. As the literature started to come out, I educated myself and started being asked to give talks about the sinking of the coast and how sea-level rise would exacerbate this -- and that was before we knew that storm intensity was changing in the North Atlantic. That's how it all evolved.

CW: At what point were you invited to contribute to the IPCC reports?

Burkett: I gave a talk for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy right after the first IPCC report had come out. The White House had commissioned a study, and I gave a luncheon talk about the loss of coastal wetlands and estuaries and what that meant. After that, because I had published a lot on the topic, the White House OSTP nominated me to be an author of the next IPCC report.

One thing I remember about that very day: I was talking at the podium and a man stood up in the back of the room and said, "So what? So what if we lose these wetlands and barrier islands?" He asked me that intentionally -- it was Mike MacCracken [currently chief scientist for climate change programs with the Climate Institute in D.C.]. I launched in to say, "Well, do you know that fisheries, which depend on wetlands and estuaries, are the second most important source of income in coastal Louisiana? Do you know that the loss of wetlands and barrier islands affects the vulnerability of our people to storms?" He got me off on a tirade intentionally.

CW: What can you tell me about the upcoming IPCC fifth assessment report, if anything, or is it pretty much a locked box at this point?

Burkett: It's pretty much a locked box at this point. I can tell you a difference between this report and all the prior reports is the influx of social science. In our Chapter 1, for example, it was the first time we had social scientists at the table, and it made a difference with the way we looked at things.

None of us ecologists would have figured out how to talk about transformation. Transformation refers to large-scale changes in the way people think, in the way we go about an adaptation, shifts in basic approaches to dealing with problems, new technologies, new values -- the shift from [gross domestic product], perhaps, as a measure of a nation's well-being to other measures. We've got societal stressors and we've got planetary stressors, both determining the resilience of people and ecosystems. And the decisions that come out in the future will either set you on a path towards resilience or less resilience -- high risk, low risk. This was the contribution of the social scientists.

CW: As you said, the IPCC is working to better integrate the physical sciences with the social sciences, and then there's a growing field of climate adaptation science. How do you see the USGS working in those areas in the coming years?

Burkett: I see the USGS contributing by bringing together our hydrologists, our geomorphologists, our ecologists, our species experts and our land-use land-cover experts to help bring together information that can help support adaptation. We're already developing models of coastal change that can help inform decisionmaking in coastal zone management, for example. I think that that's the unique niche that we fill because of the diversity of our expertise.

CW: The USGS is seen as the science agency of the Department of the Interior, but it puts out a lot of science that is important for the average citizen to know about. How can the general public better interact with the USGS to understand what you are doing?

Burkett: Our website. We have totally revamped our USGS website to make it more searchable, more easy to find experts and facts. One of the things I'm running into, because of the accessibility that we have now, is being inundated with emails I just don't have time to answer. Our press officer is working with me to try to help me come up with some ideas on how to answer them. I feel so bad because a lot of them are from young people -- people that you want to encourage, and not answering to their emails, it really bothers me. Some are college students, most of them are high school and middle school students. I had one from a Brooklyn high school student last Friday. Most of them want to interview a scientist about climate change, ask the basic questions, as you might imagine. But a lot want to know -- what about the solutions? What can I do?

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Start a free trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines