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Sea Levels Rise and Scientists Wade In

If anyone doubts that the world's environment is in a state - if not of crisis then of grave concern - I suggest attending a major scientific conference. Among the sobering assessments offered at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held this past weekend in Chicago, came from climate scientist Chris Field, director of the department of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science. "The actual emissions of fossil fuel carbon dioxide since 2000 are outside the entire envelope of possibilities considered by the IPCC's 4th Assessment released in 2007," Field told us.  Atmospheric CO2, he explained, has been rising 3.5% annually between 2000 and 2007, compared with annual increases of 0.9% in the 1990s. "We're looking at a future climate beyond anything we've actually considered," said Field. "This is very serious." But as greenhouse gas and sea levels rise, there seems to be another trend afoot. As the news from the field becomes more disturbing, an increasing number of scientists are becoming outspoken about the need to engage - not just in technical solutions but also in policy decisions that will make solutions possible. Science and policy have traditionally remained very separate, so this development is striking. For example, several years ago while interviewing a senior EPA scientist, I asked if what she had learned about a particular substance's toxicity made her think its use should be reconsidered. Before the scientist could answer, an EPA PR person on a third line cut in saying, "Not her area!" I had strayed to the realm of policy. Now the message coming from many scientists is that we no longer have the luxury of this hands-off approach. "I'm not going to hang up my citizenship at the Senate hearing room door because I'm a scientist," Stanford University biology professor Stephen Schneider said to a standing room only crowd at a AAAS symposium. During a session on deserts, an Egyptian scientist stressed the need to fill the gap between science and policy so that his country can effectively link climate issues with agriculture, poverty, food and societal security. Marine biologists emphasized the need to fold climate science into fisheries management and economic development programs, particularly for countries that depend on fisheries for food and financing. And scientists considering the future of agriculture and biofuels production outlined starkly how imperative it is to mesh science and policy to avoid exacerbating multiple environmental and social problems. This doesn't mean scientists are becoming advocates and abandoning professional objectivity and skepticism - and my observations are, of course anecdotal. Yet it does, I think, speak to the urgency of what we're now facing in terms of climate change and all its ramifications. And if the impassioned plea Al Gore made during his AAAS talk is answered, this trend will continue. "I believe strongly that scientists can no longer in good conscience accept the division between the work you do and the civilization you live in," said Gore. "The stakes have never been higher," he said. "I'm asking you for help."

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———- Elizabeth Grossman is the author of High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health.