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Environmental Influence

Come hell or high water

US science superstar Professor Gene Likens outlines what it takes to succeed in the fight to combat climate change and how data is leading the way.

Professor Gene Likens knows better than anyone that good things take time. After discovering acid rain in North America in 1963, it took 27-years for the National Medal of Science winner to see his environmental research turned into sustainable and effective action. Prof. Likens considers the importance of tenacity, level-headedness and – above all – data in the context of the vital, ongoing struggle against climate change.

Climate change is an issue that inflames passions, making effective communication difficult. How important is empathetic listening when talking about environmental issues, and climate change in particular?  

Climate change doesn’t inflame passions among scientists, other than their impatience with how slowly and poorly many politicians are dealing with this most serious environmental issue.  The latest US National Climate Assessment issued in November 2018 made clear the urgency of the issues as well as the extremely high cost of delayed action to reduce the problem.

Parties on both sides of the political issue – for example, scientists and politicians, but I am not sure that we really are on different sides – must be alert and listen to each other in order to have a productive conversation and find some compromise.

Compromise doesn’t mean that you need to come to my side of the issue. It means there needs to be an attempt to find some common ground so that the conversation can continue.

These issues are complicated and take a lot of time. It’s the kind of conversation that takes patience.

You discovered acid rain in North America in 1963 – it took another 27 years for political action to eventuate. How did you maintain the stamina to create results?  

Some 25 years are common between discovery and political action in resolving major environmental problems.  Following our discovery, there were many continuing questions that needed to be answered.  

It wasn’t so much a matter of stamina – fortunately, I lived long enough to be involved from discovery through political action regarding acid rain! – but rather a matter of being able to obtain ongoing funding to pursue important questions about this issue.  As a result, we were able to clarify the contributing factors for the public and the media.

From your experience, what skills are needed to influence political action?  

Listening, patience, persistence, being in the right place at the right time and serendipity, which I define as keeping one’s eyes, ears and mind open so that when you become aware of something unusual, you can jump on it.  This is how discoveries are made in science.

Data must be impeccable to withstand the attacks and challenges of deniers with vested interests.

How has the conversation around climate change science changed since you began your career as an ecologist? Where do you see the conversation going in the next five years?

Unfortunately, it has become much more political, but the data is now much more sophisticated and far-reaching, and there are so many more scientists doing research on this environmental problem.

My presentation for the 2019 Krebs Lecture was about long-term research and monitoring, and why data must be impeccable to withstand the attacks and challenges of deniers with vested interests.

Long-term data provides crucial and unique information on environmental change – insights that are not available otherwise.  Without such data, we are groping in the dark about what is happening around us.

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