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  • National Geographic ScienceBlogs: From Scientists to Policymakers: Communicating on Climate, Scientific Integrity, and More

    By Peter Gleick, President-Emeritus and Chief Scientist

    December 1, 2016

    Among the different professional categories, scientists and engineers remain very highly respected by the public, at least compared to politicians, business leaders, the media, and even religious authorities. Part of this is due to the fact that success in the scientific enterprise depends on impartial analysis and independence from political ideology. And yet there are strong connections between science and policy: good policy without good science is difficult; good policy with bad science is impossible. Sure, there is plenty of bad policy made even in the face of contradictory scientific evidence, but that is the result of political failures, or, at times, poor scientific communication.

    A perennial question facing scientists is when — and how — to participate in public communication and policy debates around issues of social concern. This is not a new question: as long as scientists have seen a connection between their work and major challenges facing society, some have acted on a sense of responsibility to contribute to debates about how science can be harnessed to improve the world. Scientists have little political power: they are small in numbers, rarely sufficiently financially wealthy to use money as a political tool, and often politically naïve or poorly networked.

    As a result, until the past decade or so, when new tools of social media have made more direct communication between scientists and the public easier, scientists have had limited tools to communicate policy-relevant opinions. Congressional and legislative testimony at public hearings offered one avenue for the exchange of information between policymakers and scientists. I’ve personally provided testimony at nearly 40 state and federal hearings on climate, water, and broad environmental policy issues. In recent years, however, the hostility of some policymakers to scientific evidence and information – especially at the federal level — has decreased the number of such hearings and has turned them into events more akin to political theater than educational and informational opportunities.

    Another approach was for scientists to work with television producers and film makers to produce high-quality products for the public. Early efforts of pioneers like Carl Sagan paved the way for more recent efforts, but they depended on scientists willing to put themselves forward as communicators and popularizers. Sagan, who wrote popular books and created the award-winning TV show “Cosmos,” was criticized by some colleagues at the time who felt this was not a proper role for scientists, though the more recent success of science communicators such as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have shown that this approach can be tremendously effective.

    A simpler and more common approach has been for groups of scientists to reach out to policymakers and the public in open letters, expressing concerns about public policy, suggesting priorities for governments, and calling for actions around specific issues. Two early examples include the petition to the President of the United States in July 1945 from 70 scientists at the Manhattan Project calling on Truman to refrain from deploying the newly created atomic bomb, and the famous Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which called on world governments to banish war as a way to settle disputes because of the risks of global annihilation from nuclear weapons. That letter, signed by some of the most well-known scientists in modern history, stated:

    “… There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.


    We invite this Congress, and through it the scientists of the world and the general public, to subscribe to the following resolution:

    “In view of the fact that in any future world war nuclear weapons will certainly be employed, and that such weapons threaten the continued existence of mankind, we urge the governments of the world to realize, and to acknowledge publicly, that their purpose cannot be furthered by a world war, and we urge them, consequently, to find peaceful means for the settlement of all matters of dispute between them.”

    The use of such letters has continued over the years, with appeals to policymakers around the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs, both pro and con), the accelerating destruction of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, why Brexit would be bad for science, strategies for protecting the planet from asteroid impacts, oversight of artificial intelligence research, and more.

    russell-einstein-manifesto-400x396In the last few years such letters have proliferated for three reasons: (1) the open hostility of some politically powerful groups to science and scientific findings is ringing alarm bells in the scientific community that cannot be ignored, (2) scientists now recognize that the dramatic and rapid alteration of the Earth’s very climate poses the second massive threat to the planet after nuclear annihilation, and (3) the ability to mobilize and collect signatures from scientists has greatly improved as networks of scientists have formed and social media tools have made it easier to organize around specific issues.

    Whether or not such letters are useful, motivating to policymakers, or just feel-good efforts for scientists (or a combination of such things) cannot be known for sure. But scientist seem increasingly willing to speak out on issues at the intersection of science and policy because of their special knowledge and because of their belief that they have a social responsibility to help policy makers understand the nature of both scientific threats and opportunities.

    Here, from just the past few years, are some of the key letters prepared by scientists and sent to policymakers on issues around scientific integrity, climate change, and public health:

    Climate Change and the Integrity of Science, 2010

    An early key letter on the issue of climate change and the integrity of science was published in Science magazine in mid-2010, signed by 255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences calling for action to reduce the risks of climate change and an end to harassment of scientists by politicians.

    “For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet… We urge our policy-makers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the unrestrained burning of fossil fuels. We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them. Society has two choices: We can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.”

    On February 1, 2012, 38 world leading climate scientists published a letter in the Wall Street Journal  rejecting an earlier WSJ op-ed on climate as dangerously misleading and misinformed.

    Letter to Congress from U.S. Scientific Societies on the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change, 2016

    In June 2016, a partnership of 31 leading nonpartisan scientific associations sent a consensus letter to U.S. policymakers that reaffirmed the reality of human-caused climate change, noting that greenhouse gas emissions “must be substantially reduced” to minimize negative impacts on the global economy, natural resources, and human health. These scientific organization represent practically the entirety of the geosciences expertise of the nation, including:

    1. American Association for the Advancement of Science
    2. American Chemical Society
    3. American Geophysical Union
    4. American Institute of Biological Sciences
    5. American Meteorological Society
    6. American Public Health Association
    7. American Society of Agronomy
    8. American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists
    9. American Society of Naturalists
    10. American Society of Plant Biologists
    11. American Statistical Association
    12. Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography
    13. Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation
    14. Association of Ecosystem Research Centers
    15. BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium
    16. Botanical Society of America
    17. Consortium for Ocean Leadership
    18. Crop Science Society of America
    19. Ecological Society of America
    20. Entomological Society of America
    21. Geological Society of America
    22. National Association of Marine Laboratories
    23. Natural Science Collections Alliance
    24. Organization of Biological Field Stations
    25. Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
    26. Society for Mathematical Biology
    27. Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles
    28. Society of Nematologists
    29. Society of Systematic Biologists
    30. Soil Science Society of America
    31. University Corporation for Atmospheric Research

    Letter from Leading Australian Scientists to the Australian Government on Climate Change, 2016

    In August 2016, 154 of Australia’s leading university and government scientists sent a letter to the Australian government stating “governments worldwide are presiding over a large-scale demise of the planetary ecosystems, which threatens to leave large parts of Earth uninhabitable.” The letter calls on the Australian government

    “to tackle the root causes of an unfolding climate tragedy and do what is required to protect future generations and nature, including meaningful reductions of Australia’s peak carbon emissions and coal exports, while there is still time. There is no Planet B.”

    An Open Letter on Climate Change From Concerned Members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, 2016

    On September 20, 2016, 376 members of the National Academy of Sciences, including 30 Nobel laureates, published an open letter to draw attention to the serious risks of climate change. The letter warns that the consequences of opting out of the Paris agreement would be severe and long-lasting for our planet’s climate and for the international credibility of the United States.

    Letter of Concern about the Views of Donald Trump on Scientific Reality, 2016

    A letter from a broad coalition of scientists was released in fall 2016 expressing concern that presidential candidate Donald Trump’s stated views on many topics are at odds with scientific reality and represent a dangerous rejection of scientific thinking.

    Letter to President-Elect Trump and the 115th Congress, 2016

    Thousands of scientists joined an open letter in November 2016 calling on the incoming Trump administration and 115th Congress to ensure that science continues to play a strong role in protecting public health and well-being and that scientists be protected from political interference in their work. The letter has been signed by thousands of scientists, including 22 Nobel Prize winners.

    An Open Letter from Women of Science, 2016

    In November 2016, over 10,000 women of science signed an open letter noting that science plays a foundation role in “a progressive society, fuels innovation, and touches the lives of every person on this planet.” The letter expressed deep concern that

    “anti-knowledge and anti-science sentiments expressed repeatedly during the U.S. presidential election threaten the very foundations of our society. Our work as scientists and our values as human beings are under attack. We fear that the scientific progress and momentum in tackling our biggest challenges, including staving off the worst impacts of climate change, will be severely hindered under this next U.S. administration. Our planet cannot afford to lose any time.”

    The letter reaffirmed a commitment to build a more inclusive society and scientific enterprise, reject hateful rhetoric targeted at minority groups, women, LGBTQIA, immigrants, and people with disabilities, and attempts to discredit the role of science in our society. The signers also set out a series of scientific, training, support, and policy pledges.

    Letter from All Major US Scientific Societies/Organizations to Trump Transition Team, 2016

    Amidst the nationwide concern about future challenges facing a Trump Administration, the nation’s scientific, engineering, and higher education community wrote an open letter in November 2016 urging the quick appointment of a nationally respected presidential science advisor.

    This article was originaly published on

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  • waterscarcity

    National Geographic Presents: Water Scarcity

    By Peter Gleick, President-Emeritus and Chief Scientist

    October 27, 2016

    The reality of climate change, driven by the fossil-fuel industrialization of the planet, is upon us. Scientists have known for decades of this risk and have, with increasing urgency, tried to alert the public and policy makers about the threat and the opportunities to reduce that threat, to little avail. And now, we must live with unavoidable consequences, even as we continue to work to reduce the emissions of climate-changing gases.

    Among those unavoidable consequences are widespread impacts on freshwater – perhaps the most important resource for human and ecological well being, economic productivity, and global security. Water is a renewable resource, and vital for all the things we want to do. The hydrologic cycle of evaporation, condensation, precipitation, runoff, and back to evaporation provides life-giving rains for crops and forests, generates the runoff we see flowing in our rivers and streams, and refreshes the oceans that are the nurseries for much of the life on the planet.


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  • 21st Century Water Demand Forecasting

    By Matthew Heberger, Senior Research Associate and Heather Cooley, Water Program Director

    August 31, 2016

    Yogi Berra once said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” And nowhere is this more true than in the water business. Forecasts are extremely important for water utilities, which must make plans today to meet their communities’ current and future water needs. Since water supply projects can take years to plan and build, utilities’ long-term view often reaches twenty years or more into the future. But the industry has a poor track record when it comes to long-range forecasting.

    The results of this are not purely academic. The end result is that water utilities may build unneeded or oversized water supply and treatment infrastructure – things like reservoirs, pumping stations, treatment plants, and desalination facilities – passing on the costs to customers and creating unnecessary environmental impacts. …»

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  • Steven Depolo

    U.S. Bottled Water Consumption on the Rise: What Does It Mean?

    By Rebecca Olson, Communications Associate

    July 21, 2016

                           Steven Depolo

    If last year’s bottled water sales are any indication, the sale of bottled water in the U.S. this year will likely surpass that of soda. In 2015, Americans bought the equivalent of five bottles of water per citizen each week. Meanwhile, the sale of soda fell 1.5 percent, reaching the lowest level per person since 1985.

    While there is a positive side to this picture — certainly water is a healthier beverage to consume than sugary carbonated drinks — the consumption of bottled water has negative environmental and economic repercussions, as outlined in Peter Gleick’s 2010 book Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water. As Gleick explained, each bottle of water is the product of a vast amount of energy and contributes to plastic waste. …»

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  • ERW Opinion: On Methods for Assessing Water-Resource Risks and Vulnerabilities

    By Peter Gleick, President Emeritus and Chief Scientist

    July 29, 2016

    Much more can and should be done with new data and methods to improve our understanding of water challenges, says Peter Gleick.

    As populations and economies continue to expand and as anthropogenic climate change accelerates, pressures on regional freshwater resources are also growing. A wide range of assessments of water pressures has been produced in recent years, including the regular updates from the United Nations World Water Development Reports (WWAP 2003, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2015), the biennial assessment The World’s Water (Gleick et al 1998–2015), the Aqueduct water stress datasets produced by the World Resources Institute (WRI 2015), and numerous other efforts to develop quantitative water measures and indices. The development of such methods has become increasingly common in recent years in order to help measure progress and evaluate the impacts or effectiveness of water policies and practices. The new letter in this volume of Environmental Research Letters by Padowski et al (2015) offers another opportunity to evaluate freshwater threats and vulnerabilities.


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  • Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, courtesy PG&E

    National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Diablo Canyon, Climate Change, Drought, and Energy Policy

    By Peter Gleick, President Emeritus and Chief Scientist

    June 24, 2016

    The announcement that Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) will close the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant when its current operating licenses expire in 2025 has caused what can only be described as consternation mixed with occasional conniptions among the nuclear industry and some strongly pro-nuclear groups.

    That’s understandable. Diablo Canyon is aging, but is not the oldest nuclear plant in the fleet and PG&E could have chosen to push for a renewal of the license to continue operations for many more years. Diablo Canyon’s two reactors are also California’s last operating nuclear plants, following the closure many years ago of Rancho Seco near Sacramento, and more recently, the last of the San Onofre reactors. As such, the closure is symbolic of the broader woes of the nuclear power industry in the United States, which has been unable to build new reactors and is seeing the current reactors being shuttered, one by one.


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  • SaltonSea2_lg

    Fits and Starts at the Salton Sea

    By Michael Cohen, Senior Research Associate

    May 16, 2016

    Daniel M. Edwards
    Daniel M. Edwards

    The fortunes and prospects of California’s Salton Sea have ebbed and flowed over the years. Currently, the Sea is enjoying renewed attention and funding, after almost a decade of neglect and indifference. The State of California is poised to dedicate $80 million to efforts to protect and revitalize (a small portion of) the Salton Sea, prompted in large part by a fast-approaching tipping point that will see a dramatic shrinking of the Sea, devastating its rich ecosystem and imperiling the health of hundreds of thousands of people in the region.


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  • global-drought-201602_GPCC_SPI03_edited-400x198

    National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Global Droughts: A Bad Year

    By Peter Gleick, President

    April 27, 2016

    Populations around the world face many severe water challenges, from scarcity to contamination, from political or violent conflict to economic disruption. As populations and economies grow, peak water pressures on existing renewable water resources also tend to grow up to the point that natural scarcity begins to constrain the options of water planners and managers. At this point, the effects of natural fluctuations in water availability in the form of extreme weather events become even more potentially disruptive than normal. In particular, droughts begin to bite deeply into human well-being.


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  • 2016-03-25-1458940037-4607399-20130720IMG_6479-thumb

    Huffpost Green: An Open Letter From Peter Gleick: My Transition at the Pacific Institute

    By Peter Gleick, President

    March 25, 2016

    As readers of this column may already know, earlier this week the Pacific Institute and I announced an important and exciting change: on July 1st after 28 years as co-founder and President of the Institute, I will be moving to a new position as President Emeritus and Chief Scientist. A wide search for a new president has been launched.


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  • conflict-chronology-update-590x431

    National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Water, Security, and Conflict: Violence over Water in 2015

    By Peter Gleick, President

    February 17, 2016

    Since its founding in 1987, the Pacific Institute has worked to understand the links between water resources, environmental issues, and international security and conflict. This has included early analytical assessments (such as a 1987 Ambio paper  and this one from the journal Climatic Change) of the risks between climate change and security through changes in access to Arctic resources, food production, and water resources, as well as the ongoing Water Conflict Chronology – an on-line database, mapping system, and timeline of all known water-related conflicts. In 2014, an analysis of the links between drought, climate change, water resources, and the conflict in Syria was published in the American Meteorological Society journal Weather, Climate, and Society.


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