Sixty years ago, Linus Pauling received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in creating the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which restricted nuclear weapons testing. Protests against nuclear weapons mobilized many people in those years. In one photo, famous chemist Pauling waves a sign in front of the White House amid a crowd of people. Years later, he said: “All people, all citizens, have a responsibility in the democratic process. But almost every issue has a scientific side, and this nuclear war is, of course, a scientific issue par excellence.
Can or should the world take action? Pauling suggests that if there is a scientific aspect to this, the protest is justified. At first glance, there seems to be a strong similarity to the current climate protests, in which scientists are also participating.
But there are important nuances. Nuclear weapons are a direct result of the discovery of nuclear chain reactions and the enormous energy they release. Although our understanding of the effects of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere comes from science, greenhouse gases in and of themselves are not a clear result of science. They arise from the multitude of technological and political choices that drive global consumer society. In addition to unforeseen side effects such as environmental pollution, technological progress has also made the majority of the world’s population healthier, better housed and freer. In other words, nuclear weapons have become a more visible topic of protest. Beyond mutual deterrence, there is no upside to nuclear weapons.
Climate protesters are demanding an end to fossil “subsidies” (actually tax breaks). But this condition is not scientifically proven. Economists find little reason to believe that carbon dioxide will stop2emissions or is it good for the revenue model in the Netherlands through which investments in innovations or alternative energy sources should be driven.
The (almost) unanimous scientific diagnosis – accelerating warming of the atmosphere due to powerful emissions of greenhouse gases since the Industrial Revolution – is not (yet) leading to scientific consensus on how to move forward. Replacing fossil fuels requires careful discussion about what, where and at how quickly.
Scientists who appear as scholars, rather than as individuals, bear a special responsibility. Anyone who openly attends demonstrations in a scientific capacity where it is declared that there will be no Earth for future generations is ignoring centuries of scientific progress. Apocalyptic thinking completely contradicts this. There is no scientific indication that humanity is now incapable of correction.
Anyone who expressly presents himself as a scientist must exercise the same care usual in science. This is not an academic issue. Scientists who confuse personal feelings with scientific facts in a demonstration fuel the view that science is just opinion.
The nuclear physicists of the time sawEnlightened democracy“As protection from disaster. And that is still the case. Policy begins with factual knowledge. Not with what requires urgent attention now, but with an understanding of major future changes and a balanced view of priorities. By feeding policy with facts, scientists help avoid the polarization between ideology and science.”
A version of this article also appeared in the October 2, 2023 newspaper.
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