Even at a young age, Aaron was aware of the delicate balance of nature and humankind: "I became inspired by watching David Attenborough programmes with my family - programmes such as 'State of the Planet' made me really aware of the environmental crises". This in part motivated him to study biology at The University of Sheffield where, as "a cocky undergraduate" he enjoyed showing off his new knowledge on online forums, engaging with creationists and climate change skeptics. As he completed his studies however, it became increasingly obvious that the future global climate was in a much more precarious situation than originally thought. The Copenhagen talks of 2009 had set a target of reducing fossil fuel emissions to keep global temperature rise to below 2 degrees - a level which was thought to be below 'catastrophic change'. However, as Aaron explained "things now seem more risky than we thought, with many major climatic tipping points much closer to the 2 degrees threshold than we thought". This figure, however, has been seized on by policy makers as the basis for shaping directives and setting targets. But has this 'evidence-based' policy been effective?
Apparently not. If we are to meet the 2 degrees target, we simply cannot afford to burn all the remaining carbon reserves, yet many energy companies are still investing in exploiting new sources of fossil fuels. As the years pass, and still no action is taken, the rate at which our carbon dioxide emissions will have to reduce to meet the target increases sharply: if we had started in 2011, our emissions would only have had to fall by 3.7 % per year. Now, in 2015, that rate stands at 5.3 %; if we fail to act until 2020, it rises to 9%. And yet, our carbon dioxide emissions are actually still increasing!
It is a very worrying situation, especially when you consider that over the whole age of human civilisation, climatic variation has only varied within a single degree. "Already, we struggle to cope with extremes of climate" Aaron reminded us - so how will we cope in the future?
This scenario has convinced Aaron, and many other scientists, that they simply cannot keep their research at the bench. Aaron presented the idea of a "new social contract" where scientists commit to apply their skills and knowledge to the most pressing concerns of the day in exchange for public funding. "We are scientists who are also citizens" Aaron enthused - we should not take a stance of simply throwing up our hands and saying "I couldn't possibly comment on that..." but be prepared to discuss solutions together. However it can be difficult for climate scientists to take up advocacy roles, especially when they risk criticism by their own kind. Even superstar physicist Brian Cox has publically stated that climate science and politics should be kept separate, arguing that "Advocacy has damaged trust in the science". But according to Aaron, "Bad science, not advocacy, threatens trust", an example being the sensational 'ClimateGate' enquiry. Although the scientists were exonerated, the damage to the research field has been irreparable. Researchers also face a dilemma when trying to draw attention to their work, with the media so focused on dramatic, simplified statements. "We have to find the right between being effective and being honest" Aaron said, quoting Professor Stephen Schneider, an expert on Environmental Biology and Global Change.
Meanwhile, others fear that getting involved in advocacy will impair their ability to carry out the scientific work itself. Besides stealing precious time away from experiments and research, taking a public stance could counter a scientists' obligation to analyse data objectively. Is it really possible to be simultaneously a dispassionate, objective scientist and a strident lobbyist? But Aaron believes that these can, and must, be balanced. Quoting the English physicist and novelist Baron C P Snow, he said "A scientist has to be neutral in his search for the truth, but he cannot be neutral as to the use of that truth when found".
Perhaps one of the greatest incentives however for scientists to get involved in policy making is to protect their data from being exploited by others. "Scientists who don't engage risk their data being misused by those with short-term, self-interested agendas" Aaron asserted."Remember that the public sphere is awash with agents who are not operating in good faith". When it comes to climate change, he argues that scientists also have a moral duty to present evidence of the possible consequences of human-induced global warming. He likened this to the Department of Homeland Security 'See something, Say something Campaign'. After all, in the worst-case scenario, how could we begin to tell our children that we were aware of the consequences of our actions but still refused to act?
Having inspired the audience to get out from behind their lab benches, Aaron then gave us some sound advice for advocating responsibly. It was important, he said to "communicate your values fairly and truthfully" to allow the public to see the reasoning behind your policy stance. In return, we must be aware that different people have different values and this can influence how they choose certain policies.
Secondly, keep the message simple and deliver it passionately. Regarding climate change, Aaron says that we must acknowledge that there is a misinformation campaign and help the public to understand what motivates climate change deniers. But don't engage in a debate with them yourselves - "An onlooker doesn't know who is right or wrong and you could give the impression that the argument is equally split". On the other hand, it doesn't help to only present scenarios of total apocalypse. "A message of hope is important as it gives people a sense of the role they have to play" says Aaron. " But we need to give the right message. We mustn't leave people with the impression that 'technology will come along and save us' or that if they just change a lightbulb, everything will be ok".
An illustration of this in practice is the inspiring website morethanscientists.org which holds a collection of videos made by climate researchers, explaining the values that underlie their work and how they hope it will have a positive impact for mankind. More vigorous examples included whole flotillas of researchers donning lab coats and joining the Climate Marches, and students campaigning for their institutes to stop investing in fossil-fuel companies. However you do it, Aaron says, the important thing is to get the message out there that climate change is a very real problem and one which we have to act on now. "A lot of the public think that only 50% of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening whereas it is actually more like 97%" he said. "If 97% of doctors agreed on a treatment, most people would say 'Yes I want that treatment'".
With that in mind, Aaron closed with a sobering quote from Professor Sherwood Rowland, who discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) damage the ozone layer: "What's the use in having developed science well enough to make predictions if all we are willing to do is sit around and wait for them to come true?"
Written by Caroline Wood, PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and SiP committee member
See more of Caroline's work on her blog http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/