Can We Talk About The Climate?

Monday, October 5, 2020

Science is about data. It is no surprise to me that Climate Scientists, looking at graphs like the one below, are desperate to warn us of the urgency and severity of the Climate Crisis.

But Science is not simply about raw values. Early in our education we are taught to calculate our confidence in estimated values, and to determine how well a measurement describes the phenomena we are trying to understand. The value of scientific study is that once we have determined the importance and urgency of our data, they should inform how we act.

In addition to Climate Scientists, who understandably take the lead, we have seen increasing numbers of scientists from all manner of fields unite behind a call to action in response to the Climate Crisis. Some scientists have taken professional actions, adjusting their focus, seeking more sustainable research techniques, or lobbying their institutions or those they interact with. Others have taken personal actions, changing the way the eat, travel, and spend, perhaps founding or joining Climate Activist communities.

Despite the encouraging actions of these individuals, few scientists I encounter are talking about the Climate Crisis with the sense of urgency we might expect from people with their skill set to interpret the data shown above. A surprising number of full-time scientists who have seen this graph, have not yet converted their understanding of the Climate Crisis into an observable action.

As a scientist myself, and relatively recent member of Extinction Rebellion, I asked scientists in my institution “Can we talk about Climate Change?”. A survey to try to understand the motivations and obstacles to Climate discourse in a professional setting. This is intended as an informal exploration rather than a rigorous sociological study. Although the sample size is small (~50 responses), I believe there are some concrete lessons to be learned.

The Survey

The survey was targeted towards scientists. We began by assessing how informed respondents felt about the Climate Crisis. The trend was towards feeling informed. Yet, even after the 2019 Fires in Brazil and Australia, some scientists who considered themselves “completely up to date” with the Climate Crisis did not agree that “the current climate is putting human lives at risk”.

So how were these informed scientists sharing their insight on Climate Change?

The responses suggest that scientists were speaking less often and for less time at work than they did in general. We can easily suggest explanations for this difference, on September 3rd a scientist in London, England was unlawfully arrested by the Metropolitan Police Service for speaking publicly about animal farming, global pandemics and the risk to human health.

To understand why scientists discuss the Climate less at work we also asked respondents “What drives you to talk about the climate at work?” and “What inhibits you from talking about the climate at work?” Their answers suggest some interesting trends.

I would group the respondent’s motivations, into three non-exclusive clusters. Responses linked to Weather, News and Travel all reflect ‘Experience’ of differences related to Climate Change (Totaling 58%). Responses Social Circles and Social Justice reflect a ‘Societal Responsibility’ (Totaling 14%). To me, the remaining responses reflect a ‘Personal’ (Totaling 64%). Most respondents had multiple motivations, so the percentages do not total 100.

Similarly, the inhibitions can be summarized as three rough categories, Lack of Opportunity, Lack of specific knowledge, or feeling discussion of Climate is Irrelevant at work, indicate that a required ‘Input’ is lacking, be it ‘time’, ‘detail’, or ‘connection’. This accounted for 50% of responses. Conversely, feeling the discussion is ‘Pointless’ relates to the lack of a perceived ‘Output’ (Totaling 8%). The remaining responses reflect concern about colleagues’ ‘Reaction’ or how other might perceive us for discussing the Elephant in the Room (Totaling 56%).


To understand why the majority of scientists proceed with their research as if insulated from the Climate Crisis I designed and circulated this simple survey as a Google form, and on Survey Monkey. These links lead to updated version of the survey which remains open if you would like to participate. Unlike Survey Monkey, the Google form responses were free to download and analyze.

My attempts to keep the survey as neutral as possible resulted in a very bland promotion, which may have limited the number of respondents. Despite this limitation, by steering clear of a sensationalist survey, I am more confident in the responses gathered. Considering the high proportion of scientists who chose not to engage with a survey about Climate, even in eco-loving San Francisco, California, the obstacles to discussing the Climate at work are likely underestimated by this study. On average scientist respondents discussed the Climate for less than an hour every week.

What should we do with those minutes?

If we have only a few minutes to discuss the Climate with our colleagues, or friends, or relatives. How should we go about it? The results of the “Can we talk about Climate?” survey suggest we can help build a space for discussion by sharing our personal connections to the Crisis, and providing colleagues with specific connections to the topic.

For example, most students and staff at the University of California, San Francisco are unaware that despite moves to divest financially from the fossil fuel industry, most of their electricity still comes from burning fossil fuels.

Motivation is only one side of the problem. We can all accelerate this movement by carving out time and space for discussion and removing some of the other obstacles to discourse. By talking about the Climate Crisis, we reduce the anxiety of those around us that they will be subject to Ridicule (a fear shared by 17% of respondents).

Ultimately our discussion must have an outcome. As my friend and fellow campaigner Andrew Wolfe puts it, “Talking about better recycling, doesn’t lower the atmospheric CO2 level”. If you are tired of feeling silenced or are looking for a way to increase the positive impact of your Climate Crisis conversations, I hope you will consider joining an activist community like ours. We spend as little as one hour a week talking about climate change. These conversations have led to written articles, co-signed petitions, coordination of in person actions, networking between activist organizations. If you would like to participate, XRSFBay is a great place to start.

My next survey will look at “Where is this movement among scientists getting stuck?” I hope you will participate.