Esquire: The Dark Night of the Scientists

July 8, 2015

withcoreWorth a read.  Jason Box is still dealing with aftershocks from his offhand tweet of a year ago.

In musing about the possible affects of a sudden large release of arctic methane, Dr. Box tweeted that humanity would be “f’d” – if a significant fraction were released. A lot of journos picked up on the “f’d”, but forgot the “if”….(I’ve posted on the lack of data to support overly gloomy projections about arctic methane..)
We have some challenges ahead, and a lot of scientists are somber about humanity’s prospects – but not to the point of giving up. (see post below)


The incident was small, but Jason Box doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s been skittish about the media since it happened. This was last summer, as he was reading the cheery blog posts transmitted by the chief scientist on the Swedish icebreaker Oden, which was exploring the Arctic for an international expedition led by Stockholm University. “Our first observations of elevated methane levels, about ten times higher than in background seawater, were documented . . . we discovered over 100 new methane seep sites…. The weather Gods are still on our side as we steam through a now ice-free Laptev Sea….”


Note: Most Journalists heard the “f’d” but forgot the “if”.

As a leading climatologist who spent many years studying the Arctic at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at Ohio State, Box knew that this breezy scientific detachment described one of the nightmare long-shot climate scenarios: a feedback loop where warming seas release methane that causes warming that releases more methane that causes more warming, on and on until the planet is incompatible with human life. And he knew there were similar methane releases occurring in the area. On impulse, he sent out a tweet.

“If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d.”

The tweet immediately went viral, inspiring a series of headlines:




Box has been outspoken for years. He’s done science projects with Greenpeace, and he participated in the 2011 mass protest at the White House organized by In 2013, he made headlines when a magazine reported his conclusion that a seventy-foot rise in sea levels over the next few centuries was probably already “baked into the system.” Now, with one word, Box had ventured into two particularly dangerous areas. First, the dirty secret of climate science and government climate policies is that they’re all based on probabilities, which means that the effects of standard CO2 targets like an 80 percent reduction by 2050 are based on the middle of the probability curve. Box had ventured to the darker possibilities on the curve’s tail, where few scientists and zero politicians are willing to go.


All this leaves climate scientists in an awkward position. At NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which early in the year was threatened with 30 percent budget cuts by Republicans who resent its reports on climate change, Gavin Schmidt occupies the seventh-floor corner office once occupied by the legendary James Hansen, the scientist who first laid out the facts for Congress in 1988 and grew so impassioned he got himself arrested protesting coal mines. Although Schmidt was one of the victims of the 2009 computer hacks, which he admits tipped him into an episode of serious depression, he now focuses relentlessly on the bright side. “It’s not that nothing has been done. There’s a lot of things. In terms of per capita emissions, most of the developed world is stable. So we are doing something.”

Box’s tweet sets his teeth on edge. “I don’t agree. I don’t think we’re fucked. There is time to build sustainable solutions to a lot of these things. You don’t have to close down all the coal-powered stations tomorrow. You can transition. It sounds cute to say, ‘Oh, we’re fucked and there’s nothing we can do,’ but it’s a bit of a nihilistic attitude. We always have the choice. We can continue to make worse decisions, or we can try to make ever better decisions. ‘Oh, we’re fucked! Just give up now, just kill me now,’ that’s just stupid.”


9 Responses to “Esquire: The Dark Night of the Scientists”

  1. ubrew12 Says:

    It’s BECAUSE the general public is being brow-beaten by their fossil-fueled media into taking a ‘sunny optimism’ toward climate change that I prefer taking ‘the dark side’ in my advocacy. Of Box’s two ‘radical’ points, above, both are correct:
    1) if the arctic sea floor methane begins to cut loose, we really ARE effed. This is not too likely, but sometimes when you keep tickling the bears foot, the bear responds.
    2) The MOST probable outcome of TODAY’s 400 ppm of CO2 is a rise of 75 feet in sea level. That’s not wild speculation, that’s the result of a study of 40 million years of paleoclimate data from two years ago:

    Saying the eventual rise will be 75 feet is LITERALLY the most accurate thing to say!

    The other thing I like to point out
    3) If we get to 560ppm (of which, chances are practically certain by mid-century), then there is a one-in-six chance that the eventual rise in temperature will be ABOVE 4.5 C. This is certainly ‘extinction event’ levels that will horribly constrain our human future as we scramble to deal with the consequences. A ‘roll of the dice’ is the risk we are placing on our children: of economic and environmental collapse. Now, Faux News would prefer I mention the one-in-six chance that nothing really bad will happen: sunny optimism! But Faux believes, as the nation believes, that your kid has no right to drive to the corner grocery store without fastening his seat-belt first. THAT is what true conservatism looks like: you consider ‘the worst that could happen’, and take action ON that basis. You DON’T expose your children to a 17% chance of total economic collapse. Because doing so is RADICAL, human-hating, looniness: which is the vast bulk of the ‘acceptable’ media conversation on this subject.

    • indy222 Says:

      Yes. The F-bomb was a poor choice, and later analysis shows that Arctic carbon is more likely a long term “chinese water torture” than Armageddon but the basic conclusions are, we’re in big trouble and the little things talked about by the kinder/gentler environmentalists are far too little too late. The Esquire article wants to put Jason’s general take into the far tail risk, but given the missing positive feedbacks from the attention-grabbing IPCC climate models (dark snow, Arctic carbon, dark tree growth on melting permafrost, the Vaks etal study showing we’re right now on the ragged temperature edge of a completely melted permafrost in the coming century or two, and given that temperatures will not go back down even if all carbon emissions cease, and others), we really do NOT have time to fiddle around with gradual transitions.

      • ubrew12 Says:

        Regarding permafrost: Arctic summer sea ice is currently on track to disappear a ‘mere’ half-century before the IPCC models projected it two decades ago. I wish the ‘Pollyanna-media’ would put THAT in their happy pipes and smoke it.
        Lets all humbly admit we’re in ‘uncharted territory’ here, as regards Planetary Atmospheric Physics, and that the MOST instructive lessons for that Physics (our ‘sister’ Planets: Venus and Mars) are collectively, hot enough to melt Lead, and cold enough to freeze Carbon Dioxide. Not exactly encouraging.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    It’s a sad commentary that Box’s comment has been so misinterpreted. He is 100% correct in saying that IF (the big IF) even a SMALL fraction of the sea bed carbon (methane) is released, we’re F**K-ed.

    You might fault him for not specifying what he meant by “small fraction”, but tweets are by nature not long and detailed, and anyone who knows how much carbon is locked up in the seabed deposits and in permafrost knows that a major release would be disastrous.

    I myself watch the numbers on the decline of Arctic sea ice, the warming in Siberia, Alaska, and Canada that is melting the permafrost, the melting of the Greenland Ice sheet, the warming of the oceans in general and say F**K the probabilities—-they’re just mind and number games. There is NO good news to be had, and anyone with a brain and the ability to analyze data knows that we are heading for rough times. We don’t know where the tipping points are (and may have passed some), and are forced to talk in probabilities, which are meaningless to the average citizen, who has trouble thinking beyond tomorrow.

    IMO, the 99.9% of scientists who accept AGW need to grow a set and speak out as Dr. Box did. (And I am greatly surprised at Gavin Schmidt’s comments—“focus relentlessly on the bright side” is really the nihilistic attitude here).

    • indy222 Says:

      Scientists have indeed been part of the problem. Giving in to pressure from the political influence in the UN IPCC sign-off’ers, and being “conservative” in not putting in only roughly understood positive feedbacks to their work with more forceful media. Putting in 0 for e.g. the feedback of moulins on glacial speed is itself a DECISION to say it’s zero! For God’s sake, put in a good-faith reasonable guess to these things in as simple a way as can be computationally afforded, and just do it! Qualify all you like in the paper, but do it!

      Gavin Schmidt’s an honorable scientist, and one wonders what things were said and done by the goon squads of Big Oil and the right wing, so I can’t fault him for not being as forthright as Hansen has been. Scientists didn’t go through Jason Bourne training to get their positions, after all.

  3. Gingerbaker Says:

    Dr Box’s career is not in jeopardy, right? He’s not opening a barber shop in Greenland?

  4. […] mentioned the piece in a post last week, and pointed out that “..A lot of journos picked up on the “f’d”, but forgot the […]

  5. […] and Dark Snow Project Chief Scientist Jason Box was recently featured prominently in a story about climate scientists coming to grips with  the implications of their […]

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