The Agony of the Climate Scientists Touches a Nerve
July 13, 2015
Above, straight talk from Glaciologist Eric Rignot.
And how does that make you feel?
Last week’s piece in Esquire on the existential dread of climate scientists has touched a nerve and gone viral. The takeoff point for the piece was last year’s tweet from Jason Box –
As the article has gone viral with 60 thousand plus shares so far, its come up in a lot of pro and con comments among scientists I know and respect. A lot of them take exception to the article’s gloomy tone.
I 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 “if””.
I think both Jason and I believe that doomsaying is not useful or helpful – but there may be a lesson in communication here.
The Esquire piece quotes expert Jeffrey Kiehl – “You reach a point where you feel—and that’s the word, not think, feel—’I have to do something.’ ”
Getting in touch with that emotional energy is a key to the solution.
Ultimately, its a relief to have your Doctor get real and say, “It’s cancer, and its bad….”
Doesn’t mean its all over, just frees up a lot of energy to stop worrying get to work.
And might inspire you to finally quit smoking.
Eric Holthaus expands on the piece in Slate.
But the real success of the Richardson piece is the way he depicts the internal struggle Box deals with on a daily basis.
“But I—I—I’m not letting it get to me. If I spend my energy on despair, I won’t be thinking about opportunities to minimize the problem.”
His insistence on this point is very unconvincing, especially given the solemnity that shrouds him like a dark coat. But the most interesting part is the insistence itself—the desperate need not to be disturbed by something so disturbing.
In a moment of candor I hadn’t seen before, Box revealed to Richardson that he’s already preparing for the worst:
“In Denmark,” Box says, “we have the resilience, so I’m not that worried about my daughter’s livelihood going forward. But that doesn’t stop me from strategizing about how to safeguard her future—I’ve been looking at property in Greenland. As a possible bug-out scenario.”
Despite what the Esquire article says, Box, whose work I have previously covered on Slate, is a bit of an outlier among climate scientists. Most of them aren’t as willing to talk about the plausibility of nightmare scenarios. Still, his frankness on climate change is welcome.
Ultimately, what scientists are after is truth, even if that truth is personally devastating. For that reason, being a climate scientist is probably one of the most psychologically challenging jobs of the 21st century. As the Esquire article asks: How do you keep going when the end of human civilization is your day job?
I reached out to a few well-known climate scientists for their reactions to the article.
Michael Mann, a Pennsylvania State University meteorologist whom Richardson quotes, told me, “I would emphasize that it isn’t too late to act, despite the sense one might get from the article. Our only obstacle at present is willpower.” When asked about how many climate scientists struggle with psychological dread over their studies, Mann said, “I honestly don’t know how many of my colleagues reflect on the matter. But those who don’t ought to. What we’re studying and learning is more than just science. It has ramifications for the future of humanity and this planet.”
By far the most engaging response was from Katharine Hayhoe, a rising star in the climate science community after her work engaging evangelical Christians on the issue was profiled in a Showtime documentary last year. Timenamed her one of the 100 most influential people on the planet for 2014.
Hayhoe now lives in Texas, precisely because of its climate vulnerability. Hayhoe said Texas’ “strident political opposition to the reality” makes it “ground zero for climate change,” which her work embraces. “If I personally can make a difference, I feel like Texas is where I can do it.” But she’s quick to applaud Box’s work and doesn’t criticize his family’s decision to relocate.
In the back of her mind, Hayhoe said she has also factored in humanity’s lack of progress on climate change in her family’s future plans. Like Box and his family, Hayhoe also has a bug-out scenario: “If we continue on our current pathway, Canada will be home for us, long-term. But the majority of people in the world don’t have an exit strategy. … So that’s who I’m here trying to help.”
For more honest emoting about climate from scientists, worthwhile to go here.
How I feel about climate change:
– Unwilling to give up
I am a scientist mostly focussed on studying precisely how human activities are destroying coral reefs. On coral reefs climate change effects are hugely obvious and very depressing. Huge swaths of coral have died due to heat stress and more will continue unless drastic changes occur.
It is very hard not to feel totally overwhelmed buy the magnitude of the problem and depressed by the extreme apathy of most of the worlds population (it seems) towards doing anything about climate change.
But then there are bright spots of hope:
– Suggestions of political will to actually change emissions.
– Amazing ingenuity from people designing new fuels and engineering clever solutions to counteract emissions.
– Some bits of evidence that the natural world is more resilient than it may at first appear (sometimes).
– Grass roots movements to make lifestyle changes and create community momentum towards sustainable living.
I’m not yet willing to give up on a future where humans live lightly upon the planet, and I hope that you are not, either.
All together we can fix this mess. But we do need to try!
Jessica Carilli, PhD Earth Science
Assistant Professor, UMass Boston.