The Nobel Conference: An Exercise in Public Science

The Nobel Conference: An Exercise in Public Science
David R. Weiss – October 9, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #43 – Subscribe at

Last month I attended the Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College.[1] Under the theme “Climate Changed: Facing Our Future,” the conference brought together noted speakers representing disciplines at the center of climate science and its impact on our world. It offered “public science” the way I offer “public theology.” On a much grander level, yes; which gives me something to aim for.

Today every person is a scientist-of-sorts. No, we don’t all have degrees in science, but our words and choices demonstrate whether we regard scientific inquiry as useful and overall trustworthy in describing the world. Given the stakes of global heating, it’s imperative that we navigate the challenges of the climate crisis with a healthy regard for science and an ability to converse with public science as citizens, neighbors, parents, and members of the planetary community.

The Nobel Conference was a model in how to do that. Over a thousand non-scientists (the public!) gathered to hear the speakers share their perspectives and engage in dialogue with us and with each other. Of the seven presenters, five have been directly involved in UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. Each speaker offered insight into our changed/changing climate and what that means for us and for our future. Together they put physical science, social science, human rights, and (to a lesser extent) the humanities into vibrant and essential conversation. It’s impossible to capture 8+ hours of lecture and panel responses in 1000 words. Still … hold my beer …

Amitav Ghosh (Indian novelist/essayist) lamented that public discourse on climate change is shaped almost entirely by “specialists,” while those who most directly experience its effects (refugees and the poor) remain unheard. He also noted the costly environmental impact of the military—even in peace-time—stridently stating we must choose either to fund peace and sustainability or preparation for war. We cannot do both. (Quite frankly, Earth can only afford the former.) And he called for “thicker” models of a climate-changed future because these changes will play out across already stressed geo-political fault lines that can be modeled with far less precision. Note to self: it’s also worth asking how our changing climate will shape churches and theologies—and faith—in the future.

Richard Alley (ice core scientist and IPCC author) said the physical science on climate change is now so thorough and so clear that the scientific community is effectively “done.” But other interests still perpetuate a (non)argument over the science, which only delays the crucial turn to policy responses. He’s convinced the IPCC reports offer (potentially) good news alongside the cause for alarm. The IPCC reports can chart the way to a stronger economy, healthier lives, a more peaceful planet, a cleaner environment, and a more compassionate human community. On the other hand, asked which climate “tipping point” concerns him most, Alley was blunt: human enmity. As a scientist, he’s less worried about a tipping point in Earth chemistry than in human character. Note to self: faith communities have a critical role in addressing the character crisis that a changing climate threatens to reveal.

Diana Liverman (social geographer and IPCC author) explored how UN development goals (raising people out of poverty and much more) relate to climate change. Human development can put more stress on ecosystems as standards of living rise, but other aspects can be green (notably women’s empowerment and energy technology). Thus, we need to identify synergies, where development efforts and climate responses reinforce one another; especially those rare “triple-wins” where the same project supports human development, mitigation of global heating, and adaptation to a changed climate. By attending to the details in the margins we can reduce human suffering while also responding to climate challenges. We must. Note to self: faith communities have a role here, too, in fashioning sustainable appetites, both for those of us already “developed” and those still developing.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier (Inuit and human rights advocate) brought Arctic cold to the global heating podium. Her people’s culture is built on cold: it’s central to health, security, safety, and livelihood. Countering those who say indigenous people must “learn to adapt,” she observed that indigenous people around the globe have survived because of how adaptable they are. Now, having adapted to live sustainably in their environment for generations, globalization’s unsustainability threatens their cultures and their accumulated deep wisdom of patience and persistence. She added that, like the planet, her people have a history of trauma vis-a-vis Western/white society—traumas that are interwoven. Yet the Inuit are eager to offer their voices in shaping a path toward a shared healing that she believes will be grounded in our felt connection to Earth and to one another.

Gabriele Hegerl (climate modeler and IPCC author) echoed some of Watt-Cloutier’s themes, noting that many people needing development assistance today, need it because they were pushed into poverty in earlier generations. She also said we need to reclaim human feeling as a complement to thinking—rather than a distraction to it. She reported (from a front row seat) that many climate negotiations occur “in rooms where there is no heartbeat”; the conversation is all numbers. And this lament came from a woman whose doctorate is in applied mathematics! Recognizing how multi-layered these negotiations will be, her counsel was that we take the greatest care of our political institutions; their structural well-being will be critical to navigating the disagreements that await us.

David Keith (climate technology and IPCC author) focused on solar geo-engineering as a necessary strategy (among many others) in slowing temperature rise. This basically involves spraying fine particles high in the atmosphere to reflect back enough of the sun rays to lessen the rising heat without making an appreciable difference in our sense of daylight. He was clear: the technology is not ready today, and even the idea of it as a promising technology may lead some to take the need to cut emissions less seriously—which Keith considers foolhardy. But he believes that in three decades—even with carbon cuts—such technology may well be needed for our safe survival and he’d rather we start working on it now so we’re ready. How’s that for a sort of gloomy optimism?

David Hulme (human geographer and IPCC staffer) spoke last. After several decades doing climate modeling, he became convinced (about fifteen years ago) that the real “frontline” of climate work was attending to our cultural, moral, and spiritual senses. The rush of numbers obscures the more pressing questions, which are about our very humanity and how we relate to the material world and to one another. He argued the humanities have unique value in this project as they allow us to explore notions of meaning and purpose, humanity and politics in ways that can help us map out a moral ecology. Without discounting the sciences, he felt it was critical that science be driven by humanity.

At four points during the conference all the presenters formed a panel to respond to the talks just given. It was insightful to hear these “brightest minds” bounce appreciatively off one another, even as the concluding panel grew … fractious. Following Keith’s spray-the-skies geo-engineering and Hulme’s center-the-humanities approach, it became awkwardly evident how mistrustful science and the humanities can still be. How easily we speak past each other when we listen to make our point rather than to hear others’ points. Several IPCC authors added their dismay at the news media’s focus on relatively random deadlines in reports (as though Earth operates on calendar time the way we do). By amplifying the IPCC’s dire projections into apocalyptic predictions, we miss that the data only tell one piece of the story. Human values will tell the rest. Note to self: public theology starts here.

PS: I’ve set up a insPatreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here:

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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)

[1] You’ll find background on the conference and each speaker, as well as archived videos of most keynotes, at

3 thoughts on “The Nobel Conference: An Exercise in Public Science

  1. David, you write so concisely and eloquently about the conference speakers, and I appreciate your insights about how this connects to faith communities and public theology. Thank you for writing and sharing this!

    • Thanks, Luke! This one was a real challenge to keep concise. I’m committed to keeping these blog posts to around 1200-1300 words so they fit on a single sheet of page printed double-sided. So even though you don’t see the bottom of page two on my blog, I was bumping right up against it!

  2. I started to watch the proceedings by video but work prevented me from seeing much of it, or attending to it intently. I am so glad you went. I want to listen to the presentations.

    One of the things I have done since I woke up to the truth of climate change in 2010 is enter spaces and conversations as a nonprofessional.

    I once wandered into an online conversation among transportation planners. I asked how their plans for increased traffic everywhere jibed with the state’s carbon reduction plan…. silence. I got a personal email from someone telling me that group members had agreed not to discuss politics. I told her that as a member of the general public, I relied upon professionals like her to be working on our shared state goals, based on science, to ensure our survival. We cannot reach the target without their knowledgeable guidance and participation. She replied back that perhaps it was time to rethink this agreement.

    I have attended the national climate adaptation conference three times. At the first two, I was (or seemed to be) the only non-professional in the room much of the time (it’s a professional conference and it’s expensive, out of reach for the general public. I only go one day each time.) At the second conference I attended, I remember hearing a rep from a multinational corporation talking about what his company was doing to respond to climate change (first, protect assets and respond to employees; then as it worsens, abandon entire countries). I was shocked by the business speak. I wanted to stand up and scream “Wait! Did you hear yourself? You just said your plan is to leave people to their deaths?”

    I seemed to be the only one who noticed it… This was a room full of professionals and mostly men. They were talking from the top of the building, not the street.

    Then I remembered years ago reading about gendered language in the military and how it keeps things from being said, or even thought. Putting more women in the military is not the answer if they are then programmed to think and talk like men. We settle for diversity on the outside as a proxy for diversity on the inside, but that shortcut is not always valid. (I read a recent article about how black and white engineers solve a problem the same – like engineers; you need those humanities folks and bartenders to bring diversity of thought.)

    It wasn’t until the last climate adaptation conference I attended that “the public” was noticeably present. A foundation invited us in. What an opportunity! But we were put in a room in the very back, with no signage. We had to walk through the kitchen and the hallway storage area, amidst stacked chairs, to get there. Conference participants had lovely hot meals, we had cold sandwiches.

    This conference was big; it was lively. It had a lot of women. For the first time since I had started attending, it included people of color and many tribes. I hope attendees heard them as equal participants and not as spots of color and interesting stories (literally, sometimes at meetings I’m the only one in the room not in a black suit. Men need to put away the black suit.)

    It was the best conference ever! It included workshops on self-care (inner transition). I sensed that this was a new thing for them, this decades of work already done by people like Joanna Macy. I felt sad that they were working without a psychological support network and often without community support. We need a Hug a Scientist movement. These folks are getting battered.

    How do we create/convene spaces where professionals, scientists and ordinary people can meet and have ongoing and deeper talks? Where the “public” isn’t an afterthought?

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