We Didn’t Start the Fire: Balancing the Mundane with the Disheartening
By Jack Poberezny, Climate and Society ’13
It’s not often that one comes across something in one’s free time that relates perfectly to one’s work (and indeed it can be a little unpleasant when it does happen). But as I browsed news-aggregate website Reddit, as I’m so often guilty of doing in my free time, a word in a headline caught my eye: Indonesia. “Hey,” I thought to myself wryly as I reflected on the countless maps of West Java that I spend most of my workday staring at, “I know a few things about Indonesia.”
But as I read the article I found myself engrossed in a perspective on the very work I’m doing that I’m not often exposed to in the cozy confines of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. It was about a recent rebuke by Indonesian minister Agung Laksono in response to regional frustrations over hazardous haze emitted from fires in the country. Laksono claimed that Singapore, which has been greatly affected by the haze, was “behaving like a small child,” and went on to claim that the fires are “not what Indonesians want, it’s nature.”
As the project that I’m working on is geared precisely towards providing Indonesians with climate information that can help them prepare for worse-than-normal fire seasons in advance, my interest was piqued. Unaware to this point of the extent of the international implications of this issue, I began searching for more information, and sure enough I found article after article on the topic. After 45 minutes I came to the disturbing realization that I was spending my free time reading about work, but oddly enough, I didn’t care. Too often scientific research gets reduced to cells in a spreadsheet and we lose focus on the end goal, which is to better people’s lives.
The more disturbing realization came as each article revealed some new finger pointing over who was responsible for the fires—it’s the lack of government oversight, it’s large businesses, it’s small farmers. I started to wonder if the product that we hope to develop would even do any good in the hands of (allegedly) corrupt and inefficient politicians to regulate (allegedly) careless companies and farmers. Would all this effort validating climate model outputs and researching relationships between climate data and monsoon characteristics make a lick of difference to the people in Indonesia and Singapore who are suffering as a result of these uncontrolled peat fires? I haven’t come up with a good answer yet, but I have begun to realize why there can often appear to be a cautious distance between scientists and end users of scientific research, particularly in the field of climate.
As anyone who follows the climate “debate” can surely attest, it’s easy to get bogged down in the politics of an issue and become disillusioned. But just as research is more than a cell in a spreadsheet, it’s also more than a news article. The key, I suppose, is to find a happy medium between the sometimes dull number crunching and the usually depressing political news. Will this one Excel plot make a difference to someone thousands of miles away? Probably not. Can we, as scientists, ensure that our work is kept out of the political sphere of influence? Definitely not. But nothing is going to change if nobody does anything. This type of work is often fighting an uphill battle and while it can be somewhat of a dirty job, somebody has to do it.