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Global Problems Will Require Transformative Action, Says AAAS President Claire Fraser

Claire Fraser at the virtual 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting
AAAS President Claire Fraser offered guidance on how lessons learned from the pandemic can be applied to the challenges of climate change. | AAAS

Lessons learned over the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic can offer guidance to the scientific community on how best to respond to other challenges, including the even more pressing threat of climate change, said Claire Fraser, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“It is my fervent hope that we will emerge from this pandemic with a new appreciation of the impact that we as a species have had on our planet, the consequences of our actions both good and bad, our capacity for change, and the need for immediate and transformative action,” Fraser said during her Feb. 8 presidential address at the virtual 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Fraser, the director of the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, emphasized the importance of mobilizing quickly to address problems. That novel vaccines were developed, tested and approved within a year is “a testament to the transformative power of science to serve society,” Fraser said. Yet, that work was built upon groundwork laid over recent decades, she reminded the audience.

Do not wait for a crisis to respond, Fraser urged, offering a sobering reminder of the importance of acting quickly: By some estimates, implementing social distancing just one week earlier in the United States may have avoided approximately 30,000 deaths, she said.

Fraser also highlighted the need for global cooperation. National responses to the pandemic have varied widely, and the outcomes have been accordingly varied, she said. The need for collaboration will be even more important with climate change, a problem that local mitigation on its own cannot attempt to fix, she said.

A collaborative approach must also be a holistic approach, Fraser said – apt for a scientist who selected the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting theme “Understanding Dynamic Ecosystems” and who has been guided by an ecosystems-level perspective in her own groundbreaking genomics work. The slight dip in emissions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic accounted for just 5 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, Fraser noted, which illuminated an important lesson. “Changes in our individual behaviors to reduce our carbon footprint, while important, will never be anywhere near sufficient to bring about the transformative changes that are required to tackle the climate crisis,” she said.

Science has an important role to play in bringing about such transformative changes through data-informed policymaking, and Fraser is confident that the multidisciplinary AAAS will have a role in these conversations. She called upon meeting attendees to engage with their own communities and with policymakers and civic leaders to address issues that are relevant to them.

“I challenge each of you listening to be inspired to do more and be part of this solution,” she implored.

In urging action to preserve the ecosystem we inhabit, Fraser quoted naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough: “There’s a chance for us to make amends, to complete our journey of development, manage our impact, and once again become a species in balance with nature. All we need is the will to do so. We now have the opportunity to create the perfect home for ourselves and restore the rich, healthy and wonderful world that we inherited.”

[Associated image: Tom Jemski/University of Maryland School of Medicine]