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U.S. Climate Scientists Visit Capitol Hill for Intensive Day of Bridge-Building

Clark Weaver slumped in his chair, weary after a full day treading the marble hallways of Congress with fellow climate researchers. Climate Science Day is not a junket for the atmospheric scientist who works as a contract employee at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; it is more like science version of speed—dating. Going from office to office, the best hope was that 20 minutes with a staffer might be the start of an ongoing science-based relationship.

On the last meeting of the day, Weaver hit the jackpot: a meeting with a legislative aide to U.S. Senator Jon Tester, the moderate Democrat who represents Montana.

“We started from scratch and she wanted to know glacial cycles, rate of deforesting, solar variability—all of the issues that could impact climate and why I think that humans are the main driver of climate change,” he explained afterward at a debriefing with colleagues at a pub on Capitol Hill. “She was very interested and very sharp, as every staffer that I’ve ever met on the Hill has been. And before I knew it, it was an hour and a half later.”

Weaver was one of about 30 scientists who came to Washington, D.C., for the second annual Climate Science Day, a joint effort of a an intersociety Climate Science Working Group comprised of a dozen scientific professional societies and research organizations, including AAAS. The Washington-based staffs of those co-sponsors joined the scientists in meetings with lawmakers on 1 February.

The purpose of the visits was to provide a non-partisan opportunity for scientists of many disciplines to build relationships and provide members of Congress access to the best possible climate science information. The focus was not on pressing for a particular policy or funding level, but on building relationships.

“It is important for scientists to be engaged, but also to be a good resource,” said Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Office of Government Relations. “Part of being a good scientist and interacting with Congress is helping policymakers do their job well by being an objective resource and providing scientific information that they might then use in policy decisions.”

The day on Capitol Hill also included a briefing by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, before a packed hearing room of some 75 Congressional staffers and others. U.S. Representative Eliot Engel (D-New York) sponsored the briefing; it was chaired by Art Lerner-Lam, interim director of the Lamont Doherty Observatory. Earth Institute scientists Lisa Goddard, Mingfang Ting, and Richard Seager delivered presentations on the nature of climate science.

Hongyan Luo, a biometeorologist with the National Ecological Observatory Network in Boulder, Colorado, met with U.S. Senator Michael F. Bennet (D-Colorado) during the second annual Climate Science Day organized by AAAS and other science groups. | Photo © Hongyan Luo

That context for the Capitol Hill meetings was set a day earlier, during a training session at AAAS.

“Part of the challenge is to put a face with a scientist” and begin to establish relationships so that congressional offices are willing to come to you with questions, Steve Pierson, director of science policy with the American Statistical Association, told the researchers.

“Trust is your most important asset, not your expertise,” added Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University.

Maibach spoke of how word choice can have a subtle influence on communications. For many Republicans, “‘global warming’ and ‘human-induced’ are one idea, whereas ‘climate change’ and ‘human—induced’ are two ideas. It is easier for Republicans to acknowledge climate change,” while they see global warming as a more loaded term with broader implications.

Maibach urged the scientists to take a carefully considered approach to their meetings, beginning “by finding a place of shared value.” They should listen more than speak, he added, and they should ditch the jargon and speak in plain language. That’s not dumbing down the science, he said; rather, the challenge is to explain things clearly.

The training session also featured a bipartisan panel of staffers drawn from the House and Senate who offered an insider’s view of congressional dynamics.

Thus prepared, the scientists set off the next day for their scheduled meetings, some as early as 8:15 a.m. And in many cases, the meetings defied their expectations.

“We visited six or seven offices,” said first-time participant Hongyan Luo, a biometeorologist with the National Ecological Observatory Network in Boulder, Colorado. “They were very positive and supportive of talking, and had a level of knowledge of climate change that I didn’t quite expect. Actually, I didn’t know quite what to expect.”

Among the stops was an open “Colorado coffee” hosted by Senator Michael F. Bennet (D-Colorado) in his office, where Luo and another scientist in the delegation were able to ask the senator questions. Climate Science Day is “a great opportunity,” she said. “It provides a bridge between scientists and politicians so they can have a conversation face-to-face to help communications.”

Steven Cavallo is new to the School of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, fresh from a postdoc in polar weather at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. He’s also new to interacting with elected officials, and he’d been apprehensive about scheduled meetings with the Oklahoma congressional delegation, which is all-Republican and strongly conservative.

Twenty-four hours later, the apprehension had disappeared.

“It was fun—it was definitely worth it,” Cavallo said. “Their stance on climate change is that they are skeptical. They brought up that they are skeptical of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) reports and of any model projections of climate change. But we were not there to debate whether global warming was occurring. It was just a friendly discussion.”

Oklahoma has been battered by extreme weather events in recent years and much of the discussion focused on adaptation toward maximizing benefits and minimizing losses for the state. “They were appreciative of the fact that we were not there for any specific legislative agenda or funding,” Cavallo said. “We were just there to open up the discussion, establish a relationship with them.”

Peter Craigmile, an associate professor of statistics at The Ohio State University, seconded the importance of localizing conversations with Congress. “People certainly were interested to hear about climate issues and interested in thinking locally,” he explained. “The one thing that we were trying to do is get people thinking about local impact. We know that every part of the U.S. is a bit different in terms of how we see the climate changing. Being able to adapt to that is really key in the future.”

This is the second year that Craigmile has participated in Climate Science Day. “As an academician, education is the most important part of it,” he said. “As much as we want to educate the public, it seems like the obvious place is also to educate government, and offer as much help as we can. The idea is that we are not just writing academic papers that go to a very select audience—we want to try and have as broad an impact as possible.”

Noah Diffenbaugh’s last meeting of the day was with U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a conservative Republican from Southern California, and it lasted an hour. Diffenbaugh said the congressman and the scientists had “a very pleasant and positive discussion about the level of scientific understanding that we have about the climate system, the institutions of science by which we conduct our day-to-day work and the peer-review process, and how public decisions are made within the context of scientific understanding.

“One of the responsibilities that we have as scientists, particularly those of us who receive public funding for our research, is to be engaged with the public about our understanding of the way that the world works and also about the limits of our understanding,” said the Stanford University researcher, who holds dual appointments with the School of Environmental Earth System Science and the Woods Institute for the Environment.

“For me, the most important message that I have to communicate to Congress and to other decision-makers is that I am working as hard as I can to conduct the most objective science that I possibly can, and read the evidence as objectively as I can. None of my scientific work or communications is motivated by any particular outcome in the public arena. I’m not advocating for any particular decision. Those are the choices for our elected representatives to make.”

”We want to put a more local and regional face behind scientific research, said AAAS’s Carney. “These are people who are doing their research on a day-to-day basis at universities in your district. This is the type of work they are doing and they are a valuable resource.”

Those are precisely the reasons why NASA Goddard’s Clark Weaver has made the commitment of time and effort to keep coming back to speak with members of Congress and their staff members. “Scientists have to get out and do more of this type of outreach,” Weaver said. “I wish more of my colleagues would do it.”


See AAAS’s extensive non-partisan resources on climate change.

Learn more about the AAAS Office of Government Relations.