An oath for climate scientists: speak truth to power, and take personal action for climate change

Scientists for Global Responsibility, a U.K.-based organization, has launched a new initiative with an Open Letter in The Guardian on November 7, stating: “Science has no higher purpose than to understand and help maintain the conditions for life to thrive on Earth. We may look beyond our planet with wonder and learn, but this is our only viable home.”   The online campaign asks the world’s climate scientists to sign an Oath, modelled on the Hippocratic Oath for physicians, by which they “pledge to act in whatever ways we are able, in our lives and work, to prevent catastrophic climate disruption.”  

The website continues:

“To translate this pledge into a force for real change, we will:

explain honestly, clearly and without compromise, what scientific evidence tells us about the seriousness of the climate emergency.

not second-guess what might seem politically or economically pragmatic when describing the scale and timeframe of action needed to deliver the 1.5°C and 2°C commitments, specified in the Paris Climate Agreement.  And, speak out about what is not compatible with the commitments, or is likely to undermine them.

to the best of our abilities, and mindful of the urgent need for systemic change, seek to align our own behaviour with the climate targets, and reduce our own personal carbon emissions to demonstrate the possibilities for change. 

With courtesy and firmness, we will hold our professional associations, institutions and employers to these same standards, and invite our colleagues across the scientific community to sign, act on and share this pledge.”

Scientists for Global Responsibility have been active in previous climate-related activism – for example, a campaign seeking fossil fuel divestment by the U.K. Universities’ Superannuation Scheme (USS), as summarized in “Is your pension fund wrecking the planet?” (March 2020) of Responsible Science. That journal was launched in 2019; they also communicate through social media (@ResponsibleSci on Twitter) , webinars and conferences, and have a long history of published reports addressing all aspects of ethical issues in science and technology. Founded in 1992, the history of SGR is here.  

Scientists, engineers, doctors protest the climate emergency

Scientists captured global attention with dire climate warnings in November when the mainstream media amplified their message contained in an article published in the academic  journal BioScience.  The article itself is clear and direct, beginning with:

“Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat and to “tell it like it is.” On the basis of this obligation and the graphical indicators presented below, we declare, with more than 11,000 scientist signatories from around the world, clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.”

On the issue of The Economy, the article states: “Excessive extraction of materials and overexploitation of ecosystems, driven by economic growth, must be quickly curtailed to maintain long-term sustainability of the biosphere. We need a carbon-free economy that explicitly addresses human dependence on the biosphere and policies that guide economic decisions accordingly. Our goals need to shift from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality.”

The Alliance of World Scientists invites scientists from around the world to sign on to the message. Summaries about the warnings appeared in The Guardian here  and in Common DreamsWarning of ‘Untold Human Suffering,’ Over 11,000 Scientists From Around the World Declare Climate Emergency” .   A Canadian viewpoint  appears in an article in the  Edmonton edition of the Toronto Star ,“5 Alberta scientists tell us why they joined 11,000 scientific colleagues in declaring a climate emergency” .

Engineers:

Like the scientists, other professionals recently spoke up about their “moral obligation” to do what they can to fight the climate emergency.  “Leading Australian engineers turn their backs on new fossil fuel projects” in The Guardian reports: “About 1,000 Australian engineers and 90 organisations – including large firms and respected industry figures who have worked with fossil fuel companies – have signed a declaration to “evaluate all new projects against the environmental necessity to mitigate climate change”.  The article focuses on  a new group, Australian Engineers Declare  , which issued an Open Letter in September 2019,  acknowledging that their professional organization, Engineers Australia, has a strong policy regarding climate change, but calling for faster action to address climate breakdown and biodiversity loss.  Engineers Declare states that engineers are connected to 65% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, and that “engineering teams have a responsibility to actively support the transition of our economy towards a low carbon future. This begins with honestly and loudly declaring a climate and biodiversity emergency…we commit to strengthening our work practices to create systems, infrastructure, technology and products that have a positive impact on the world around us.” The declaration continues to list specific actions, including: “Learn from and collaborate with First Nations to adopt work practices that are respectful, culturally sensitive and regenerative.”

Physicians:

doctors DXR-logo-webOn November 1, the editor-in-chief of The Lancet, one of the world’s most prestigious  medical journals which has published a Countdown Report on Climate Change and Health since 2016.  As reported in “Protesting climate change is a doctor’s duty” ,  the most recent remarks were made in a video  which calls for health professionals to engage in nonviolent social protest to address climate change. The video cites the British professional standard, Duties of a Doctor, and lauds  Doctors for Extinction Rebellion , four of whom have been arrested in London. The website of Doctors for Extinction Rebellion chronicles recent activities including that on October 17th 2019, the Royal College of Physicians committed to Divest from Fossil Fuels.

Professional Associations have a Role to Play in Climate Change

A report published by West Coast Environmental Law starts from the position that climate change is a cross-cutting issue that affects advice and decision-making in many different professions, including architects and engineers, professional foresters, biologists, insurance professionals, accountants, and city planners. The report calls for an enhanced role for professional associations using the existing tools, such as codes of conduct and ethics, standards of practice, requirements for continuing professional development, and policy statements. In one example, the author suggests a statement of ethical responsibility to “act in the public interest (including promoting sustainability); not speak beyond one’s expertise or competence; not make misleading statements or falsify data; and act with due diligence”. The report describes exemplary climate change initiatives underway by such groups as the Canadian Institute of Planners, Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC (APEGBC), and Greenhouse Gas Management Institute (GHGMI).

LINKS

Professionals and Climate Change: How professional associations can get serious about global warming, written by Andrew Gage and published by West Coast Environmental Law (WCEL), a British Columbia “non-profit group of environmental law strategists and analysts dedicated to safeguarding the environment through law”. Available at:
http://wcel.org/sites/default/files/publications/Professionals%20and%20Climate%20Change_0.pdf

Engineers Consider Sustainable Infrastructure

A recent article in the journal of the Ontario Centre for Engineering and Public Policy discusses sustainable infrastructure as a social and technical system, arguing that sustainable infrastructure requires consideration of the broader social and political context, in addition to the more traditional economic and physical aspects. See “Climate Change, Sustainable Infrastructure and the Challenges Facing Engineers” in Policy Engagement (Sept/Oct 2013) at: http://members.peo.on.ca/index.cfm/document/1/ci_id/93318/la_id/1

Canadian Physicians Urged to Fight Climate Change

An Editorial in the February 13, 2013 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal urges the Canadian medical establishment and individual physicians to advocate against climate change by signing the December 2012 Doha Declaration on Climate, Health and Wellbeing. It also points out that physicians can act on a professional level to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their own health care workplaces. See “Physician’s Roles on the Front Line of Climate Change” in the CMAJ volume 185 #3 at: http://www.cmaj.ca/content/185/3/195.full.pdf+html?sid=ffff264c-ea63-4daa-9c5d-ae8cdf448787