Climate strikes: why we scientists are getting involved

Young people are on a climate strike, and researchers are supporting their cause. Reto Knutti of Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology ETH  discusses an unexpected turn in the climate change debate and the role of science in society.

This content was published on March 14, 2019 - 10:02
Reto Knutti

Scientists have been publishing one climate report after the other, and politicians debate endlessly on which actions to take, yet very little has actually happened.

That is, until recently, when Swedish student Greta Thunberg called for an international strike over climate protection. Now more than twelve thousand scientists have signed a call to actionExternal link prepared jointly by climate researchers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. So why are we getting involved?

The facts are clear

Climate change is real and is predominantly caused by humans. It is already having major effects, many of which are irreversible. In a perfect world, science provides the factual basis and society then decides what actions need to be taken. The reality looks far different, however.

Reto Knutti is professor of climate physics at Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) Giulia Marthaler/ETH Zurich

For one, highly influential networks generate “alternative facts” to spread doubt and to influence policy making and societyExternal link. Secondly, actions do not unequivocally proceed from facts – people’s values matter. Is the ideal vision of Switzerland a country with high biodiversity, one with an intact climate, or is it one with a large gross national product?

What we “must” do depends on how much we value the world we will leave for our children and grandchildren to live in. If our primary goal is merely to maximize profits over the next few years, then the climate and biodiversity do not matter. This is not the case, however, if we want to guarantee our livelihoods in the long term. The internationally accepted Sustainable Development Goals are also fundamental principles rooted in Switzerland’s Federal Constitution. Leaving it all up to others is not an option either, as the United Nations Framework Convention’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”External link states.

In other words, there are almost no purely fact-based decisionsExternal link. Context, options, and a discussion about priorities are required. This is especially true for “tricky problems” like climate change, migration or social justice, where all factors are both cause and effect at the same time and where there are many competing players and interests.

We have to act on climate change

Those who argue that nothing can be substantiated or decided in such cases are mistaken. Switzerland and other countries have agreed to actExternal link in order to prevent dangerous climate change. What defines “dangerous” had not yet been defined in 1992, but a clear international policy goal was set with the Paris Agreement – to keep warming well below 2°C while aiming at a target of 1.5°C.

But we are not on course, which is why ambitious measures need to be taken. Even in areas where there is less scientific certainty, the UN Framework Convention recommends that preventative measures in the face of serious or irreversible damage should not be delayed.

“As researchers we must point out when facts are being distorted, science is being instrumentalised, or when actions are inadequate.” Reto Knutti

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The exact measures to be taken are the subject of the political negotiation process, which science neither can nor should dictate. As researchers, however, we must point out when facts are being distorted, science is being instrumentalised, or when actions are in adequate. Here, it is essential for the scientific community to remind people of the facts and point out that more action is urgently needed if we are to meet the ta gets set out in the Paris Agreement, even if there is a risk that people will imply science is not acting from a politically neutral stand point.

Legitimate concerns

Greater efforts are indeed necessary. This is precisely the de mand that scientists are making in their statement. In it, we confirm that from a scientific point of view, the youth striking over climate change have legitimate concerns. At universities, we not only develop foundations and solutions; we also educate young people to think critically about the world. We do not endorse the strike per se, but we do support the students in their determination to be included in the political discussion, to take responsibility, and to find constructive ways together to shape the future of Switzerland and the world for the next generationsExternal link.

The dedication and commitment shown by these young people is an exhortation for us older people to take action. As a private individual as well as a scientist, I believe that these young climate strikers should be taken seriously. It is time for a shift in the way society thinks. As so often in history, perhaps this will indeed require a grass roots movement – from the youth, who are not yet weighed down by the inertia of the status quo and who are paving the way for change.

This article was originally publishedExternal link on the ETH Zurich ZukunftsblogExternal link.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of 

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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