Rick Katz and his colleagues from Colorado were a bit apprehensive as they set out on Climate Science Day for an early morning Capitol Hill meeting. Their host, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado), “is on the record as being skeptical that climate change is being caused by humans,” said Katz, a statistician at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder.
The meeting with the legislative director “was tough at first,” Katz recalled. “But I knew Lamborn had introduced legislation on disaster funding, so I showed them a graph of billion-dollar weather disasters and how they’ve been increasing in recent years.” That shift “from talking just about the science of climate change to the impact” helped spark a true discussion.
The third annual Climate Science Day, 26-27 February, was about building relationships as a resource for understanding the myriad factors that can affect climate change, explained Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations. To help organize this event, Carney worked with the Washington-based staff of other professional science societies, coordinating visits to congressional offices for more than three dozen scientists.
“The point was to meet with as many members as possible, Republicans or Democrats, who have an interest in the research that is being done in their state,” said Carney. “This was not about asking for funding, it wasn’t about policy options; we were just here to present the science very objectively and robustly.”
Much of the first day in Washington was spent in training to lay the groundwork on how to interact with congressional staff. “I’ve had meetings on the Hill before but what was really eye-opening is the type of preparation that they do provide,” said another scientist in the Colorado contingent, Kevin R. Petty, chief science officer with Vaisala Inc. in Louisville, Colorado.
“The way we communicate is so important,” he added. A word may have a specific meaning for a scientist but a very different connotation for somebody else. “Going through that preparation and hearing some of the discussions on how to communicate was a little bit unexpected for me. It was really good.”
Thomas Kampe, assistant director of remote sensing with the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) in Boulder, said, “Not having that, going in cold, it would have been much more difficult to communicate.”
“Staffers were most interested in impact that is tangible today—things like wildfire and drought,” he said. “And then hopefully you can extend that to, these are some of the things we would expect to see from climate change. But it was hard to make that transition. People were very focused on what is occurring today.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Kampe was to step out of his own comfort zone of jargon and use clear, plain English to explain basic scientific principles. “It made me realize how difficult it really is to convey the overall message of what climate change is, how we are seeing impact, and how to relate it to people who may not have a strong scientific background.”
Petty was pleased to be able to bring a private sector perspective to the discussion. He found most of the staff receptive to the view that “government doesn’t have to be responsible for doing everything; there are companies that do have capabilities out there that can help.” The message had particular resonance on the day before the across-the-board U.S. federal budget cuts known as sequestration kicked in.
The three citizen scientists were unanimous in describing their experience as “exhilarating” and “exhausting.” “The people we met with were very cordial and accepting. They were willing to listen to what we had to say and have a real conversation,” Kampe said. “We didn’t have any meetings that were adversarial.”
“I’ve watched C-SPAN for years but you don’t have any idea what it is really like unless you go there,” said Katz. “These legislative assistants are incredibly hard working, bright, mostly young people. It’s an incredibly fulfilling experience to do at least once.”
“Although you are quite exhausted, you walk away with a sense of accomplishment and that you could contribute to something that was much larger than yourself or your organization,” said Petty.
See AAAS’ extensive non-partisan resources on climate change.
Learn more about the AAAS Office of Government Relations.