April 22 marks another Earth Day in the shadow of knowledge that our planet is undergoing some increasingly visible changes.
With a record El Niño stacked on top of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, 2015 smashed all previous temperature records by a blowout margin. Global average temperatures for the year were 0.9°C over the 20th century average, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—the fourth time in this young century that a new high mark has been set.
This winter was the warmest on record in the Northern Hemisphere, NOAA also reported. At one point in late December, the North Pole neared the melting mark. The season’s Arctic sea ice cover was the lowest in nearly four decades of satellite imagery. And bucking years of scientific reticence, the National Academies of Science reported in March that at least some extreme weather events, such as heat waves or torrential downpours, may be attributed to a warming planet.
Numerous scientific organizations have been outspoken about the need to recognize, mitigate and adapt to climate change, and AAAS, which has been on the record about the phenomenon for nearly a decade, is no exception. Over the years, AAAS has built a significant toolkit for both STEM professionals and the general public to learn about climate change, what’s going on, and why.
There’s Science, of course, the flagship publication of AAAS, and one of the world’s top peer-reviewed research journals. But that’s just the tip of the melting iceberg.
Earth Day, April 22, marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970. | Photo: NASA
In 2014, AAAS produced an online “What We Know” report to drive home three big points about climate change: Scientists agree it’s happening; humanity faces the risk of “abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible” change; and the sooner something is done to rein it in, the lower the risks and costs. The report is bolstered by videos in which leading researchers like climatologist Katharine Hayhoe, meteorologist Marshall Shepherd, and glaciologist Richard Alley explain in layman’s terms why the science is so robust.
Meanwhile, AAAS’s active public engagement program has trained several hundred scientists in how to spread the word about climate change within the academy and among the general public.
“There’s a huge thirst within the scientific community for resources and guidance about how to communicate about climate change,” said Jeanne Braha, director of public engagement at AAAS. “Climate scientists often feel nervous about sticking their neck out there because in climate science, they often get negative reactions from different publics.”
Having the support of an organization like AAAS helps take some of the pressure off, Braha says.
And to further help scientists, AAAS has the Leshner Leadership Institute for Public Engagement with Science. The program, newly christened after former CEO Alan I. Leshner, is giving a class of 15 scientists from various disciplines a chance to sharpen their climate change communication chops.
“They’re serving as standard-bearers, and will lead the charge for more scientists to more and better public engagement with science,” Braha said. The scientists will spend a week at AAAS headquarters in Washington D.C. in June, then will go back to their home institutions to work on projects aimed at spreading the word about climate science.
“We have ecologists, and we have mathematicians who do modeling, and we have atmospheric chemists and we have an oceanographer—a little bit of everything,” Braha said.
Public engagement can be a two-way street, Braha added: Scientists who work with the public get insights into what the public’s concerns really are—and sometimes, they get tips that help them with their research. That’s what happened with a 2015 study on the effects of common sunscreens on coral reefs in the Caribbean, which Braha said originated with a man in the U.S. Virgin Islands who suggested researchers check out the oily slick left on the water by tourists.
“That was a variable that the scientists weren’t accounting for, because they hadn’t conceived of that,” she said. “Having that kind of local knowledge and awareness helped them think outside the box a little bit in terms of what might be affecting the reefs.”
In October 2015, AAAS marked the 50th anniversary of the first official warnings about climate change—when President Lyndon Johnson’s science advisers warned him humankind “is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment”—with a symposium on what we’ve learned in the past half-century. The event brought together more than a dozen scientists who recounted the damage—current and expected—wrought by the phenomenon, and discussed how to address the hazards it poses in the future.
"It's remarkable to think that that long ago the science was already pointing in a direction that we had to pay attention to atmospheric changes because they'd be so powerful that they would affect the climate," Matthew Scott, president of the Carnegie Institute of Science, told the symposium.
AAAS’s climate change portfolio also includes Science NetLinks, offering educators a variety of resources for teaching climate change in elementary, middle and high school classrooms. There are interactive lessons to help teachers explain the natural systems that surround us, how humans affect the environment and the costs and benefits of different energy technologies, sometimes illustrated with games.
Available to media outlets, there’s EurekAlert!, the distribution service that puts reams of newly published, newsworthy research at the fingertips of working reporters every day. About 12,000 reporters get news releases from 1,900 institutions through EurekAlert!, where climate change is one of three special topics featured daily, said Brian Lin, the service’s director of editorial content strategy.
“We hope that through the portal, people get a sort of high-level view of all the climate change research that’s fit to print, so to speak,” Lin said. Not only do reporters subscribe, but the service gets about 1 million monthly page views from the general public, he said. And EurekAlert is in the process of adding a weekly newsletter highlighting the top stories from its special topic sections, which also include cancer research and marine science.
“It’s something that AAAS is very dedicated to, and we do get a significant number of releases,” he said.