Leading climate scientist James Hansen gives a briefing on global warming on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., in 2008. (Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

USA - Column: Want people to understand climate change? Pay the experts

UCLA climate scientist Daniel Swain is tired of working for free.

In a series of posts last week on the social media site formerly known as Twitter, Swain — who has been quoted in The Times and other media outlets hundreds of times over the last decade — lamented how hard it is to make a living sharing information about the climate crisis with the public. He said it’s nearly impossible for climate scientists to get paid for communications work — even though that work is badly needed in an era of rampant carbon pollution.

“The status quo is not sustainable,” Swain wrote.

His posts went viral. They were shared by dozens of scientists and journalists who lamented the lack of public and private funding dedicated to improving public understanding of ever-deadlier heat waves, fires, droughts, storms and more.

“It’s particularly ironic as scientists are often accused of ‘being in it for the money’ when in fact like teachers who use their salaries to buy supplies for their students, we donate our own salaries and time to these efforts because they matter so much,” wroteKatharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech University and chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy.

“Journalists rely hugely on a network of scientists who do public-facing communication for free,” wrote Shannon Osaka, a climate reporter at the Washington Post. “But sometimes the significance of that work is not fully appreciated.”

I certainly rely on Swain and other scientists to tell environmental stories — as do my L.A. Times colleagues on our Climate California desk. Those scientists spend time on the phone with us explaining their research, and out in nature showing us firsthand what they’re seeing. They answer our follow-up questions and help make sure we get the details right.

The problem, in Swain’s view, is that scientists typically aren’t compensated for that crucial work — or for anything else they might do to contribute to solving global warming, beyond publishing studies and hoping people take their work seriously.

Among university administrators and federal officials who hold the purse strings for much of America’s science funding — many of whom hail from older generations — there’s a prevailing attitude that “if you’re not doing research, you’re wasting time,” Swain told me. Scientists who want to spend time talking with journalists or advising elected officials — or answering questions through regular “office hours” on YouTube, as Swain has taken to doing — are almost certainly on their own financially.

Read more.