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.


Reaction to climate change from Jessica Carilli Phd, a corals expert at University of Massachussetts. More here.

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:

–    Dismayed
–    Depressed
–    Powerless
–    Sad
–    Overwhelmed

-But also-

–  Hopeful
–  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.


30 Responses to “The Agony of the Climate Scientists Touches a Nerve”

  1. I know this thread is effectively done, but thought I’d add this article from @aaronhuertas as more grist for the mill:

    Esquire Falls into the Despondency Trap—We’re Not “F’d” on Climate Change – The Equation

    • jimbills Says:

      I’d classify Huertas’ article as a false message. He writes under the auspices of UCS, but he started out as an aide to a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, and his article very much fits into a status quo style ‘solution’ to climate change, while minimizing its threat at the same time.

      Some quotes:

      ‘The title of the piece overstates climate risks in a fundamental way: “When the End of Human Civilization is Your Day Job.”’

      Huertas is saying civilization is NOT risked by climate change – that’s his fundamental assumption. Huertas goes on to explain that ocean rise threatens coastal areas, but he doesn’t look at one of the more frightening aspects of climate change regarding civilization, which is food production and water availability. As our population continues to rise, we’re fully reliant on an agricultural system that is highly susceptible to droughts, water shortages, heat waves, as well as the other pollution and resource availability problems building as we try to maintain and grow the population. Human civilizations are ALWAYS threatened when food and water becomes scarce.

      We are also very reliant on an extremely complex economy. Complex systems break down more thoroughly than simple systems, and climate change threatens a scenario where costs exceed income. In other words, we’ll be paying more and more to just stay the same, and climate change threatens a permanent reversal into the red side of the ledger. This isn’t a positive scenario for an extremely complex economy.

      Huertas is telling a lukewarmer story here. He’s saying to his readers not too worry – even the worst case for climate change won’t be SO bad. Now, will his readers see that and be more likely or: a) be comforted back into complacency, or b) stand up and realize the urgency of the matter?

      Huertas goes on to say how people in New York City won’t suffer as much as people in Tuvalu. That’s a complete failure to understand the threat from climate change. The people in Tuvalu live in a more simple society than the people in New York City. We know Tuvalu is doomed, and they’ve purchased land in other areas. They’ll just move. The people in New York City face rising floods that shut down whole sections of the city, the loss of billions of dollar in property, the security of a functioning economy with the widespread loss of jobs, loss of life from heat waves and food shortages, and so on.

      ‘Scientists who regularly communicate about climate risks owe it to their audiences to make it clear that there are significant differences between a lower and higher-emission future.’

      Yes, this is true. We do face that, and that’s a fine message for scientists to deliver. However, the problem with lukewarmers is that they underestimate what we actually need to do to offset a high-emission future to get to a low-emission future, as well as underestimate what even a low-emission future means.

      Huertas continues with the pro-growth environmentalism mantra, using the example of California. He shows a graph of California’s GDP and emissions, and at first glance, it looks pretty good. But take out the emissions per capita and emissions per GDP lines. These are meaningless. The ONLY important one is total emissions, and that shows a flatlined trend of 13 years, despite widespread efficiencies, adoption of solar, an aggressive EV market, and so on. Add to that the simple fact that a LOT of California’s actual emissions are offshored in fossil carbon extraction, goods manufacturing, and food production (California grows veggies, nuts, and wine, but very few staple crops and relatively little meat). Now, add to that the immense rises in emissions in the developing world. Will an established, highly complex, pro-growth region with flatlined GHG emissions be enough to avoid serious climate change?

      ‘A combination of farsighted policies, new technology, and creative financing deals are doing a lot to address climate change.’

      No, they are not. They’re doing very little. They might be enough to avoid a 4-5 degrees C rise in global temperatures (although, that’s made iffy by the growing evidence of positive feedbacks), but that’s all.

      The problem here is what to do about climate change. A lukewarmer position is that it both won’t be catastrophic and we can address it with continued economic growth and a maintenance of most to all current habits and lifestyles. That’s what Huertas is saying in his article. Will this belief system more likely lead to necessary change, or will a more aggressive approach?

      The willingness to accept the possibility that we’re effed, and not only that, but that if we don’t act aggressively we’re effed – that’s what COULD lead to the Churchill and FDR fights that Huertas mentions. Just telling people it’s all going to be good, don’t worry, we’re not effed – that sort of message only serves tp block an aggressive fight.

      • Gingerbaker Says:

        Good comment.


        “The problem here is what to do about climate change.”

        I will say this:

        The answer is not to concentrate on improving your carbon footprint, or call for a wholesale change in societal structure, or call for an economic implosion, or to think small and vague like calling for a carbon tax.

        The answer is to build and deploy a new 100% renewable energy utility system ASAP, so we stop doing what is killing us – putting huge amounts of carbon in the air. Everything besides building and deploying is hot air.

        • jimbills Says:

          Thanks. Nice to agree with you – ha ha. In truth, we probably agree on a lot of things, and just argue about what we don’t agree with here.

          My position has long been that your idea is a very good one, and I’d love to see us do it, but: 1) I rate its likelihood as extremely low, and 2) it doesn’t do enough even if we did do it.

          Someone can read that and assume my meaning is that we shouldn’t try, then. This isn’t true at all. I’m in favor of it all – carbon taxes, added residential solar, giant wind farms, efficiency tech, government mandates – all of it.

          My problem is with the multiple ways we deceive ourselves into thinking we’re addressing a problem when we’re really only easing symptoms.

          • Gingerbaker Says:

            Infrared energy doesn’t care how many people are on the planet, or if we consume “too much”. It responds only to molecules which absorb it, like GHG’s.

            We can’t stop burning fossil fuels until we build the power plants to make the electricity to replace them. All we have to do to solve AGW is to stop putting GHG’s into the atmosphere. GHG’s aren’t a “symptom”, they are, indeed THE problem – for AGW.

            We could have 30 billion people living on Earth, all with the lifestyle of Donald Trump. That would cause other problems – but not AGW, once we no longer burn carbon.

          • jimbills Says:

            GB – your basic problem is that you oversimplify how our economy functions. You think if we just switch the source of energy, then we can move away from GHGs as we keep our current way of life (and potentially keep growing).

            We have a LONG way to go before we can implement a fully ‘decarbonized’ electricity system, let alone decarbonize a full energy system (+transport) and account for other emissions (industry, food, deforestation, land use, construction, resource extraction, and so on).

            Besides the intermittency issue with renewables, we’d have to re-wire the entire grid, switch out all transport, and solve all the other sources simultaneously. The resources needed for this are close to unimaginable, and to practically get there, we’d burn one heck of a lot of fossil carbon. It wouldn’t happen in a bubble, which is where the Jacobson and Delucci scenario exists.

            Economic growth makes that transition many times more difficult, and as such, growth is our root problem. If we’d stop growing, if we figured out how to reduce our consumption patterns, we’d go a lot further to ‘decarbonization’, which is a myth in anything resembling our current way of life.

            You don’t think things like solar panels and EVs emit GHGs when their resources are mined, when they are manufactured, or when they are maintained. It’s like magic. They produce fewer GHGs than dirtier sources, especially coal, but their footprint is not zero. You additionally minimize/ignore GHGs that aren’t from electricity and transport as well as all our many other very serious environmental problems related to growth. They don’t fit well into your neat view of reality.

            I’m tired of arguing about this. It should be obvious to anyone who sits down and looks at this stuff, except, apparently, you.

      • j4zonian Says:

        Yes, jimbills,

        I essentially agree with your excellent post; just want to offer a couple of refinements.

        1. Complex systems can collapse more easily or not; if they have redundancies and multiple pathways built in (the permaculture principles come to mind as one example), that is, multiple elements accomplishing each important task, multiple pathways to each important element, etc. they’re actually more resilient. That’s one important goal of both permaculture and the Transition Movement—to move from our current state of vulnerability to one of resilience.

        2. California’s economy and population (almost all due to immigration) have both doubled while electricity use has stayed the same. While I agree that it’s not nearly fast enough, it’s a decent feat given the intransigence of the right wing and corporate owners of the place. Despite it not being fast enough or creative enough, California has shown creativity in responding, and is way ahead of most of the other US states, especially in efficiency, the cheapest and most ecological form of energy we have. It’s still a monumentally wasteful place, is having a fight over fracking and other energy and water uses (which are interrelated) with the politicians ignoring the people’s desire, but other states could take note of what California has done so far.

        We do indeed need to tell people the entire truth—the certainties, and the range of uncertainties. We need to talk about the problem and how incredibly dire it is, but AT THE SAME TIME need to talk about the solutions that as far as we know CAN solve the problem, if we act massively and rapidly in the right ways. At the same time we also need to provide some level of counseling and community to compassionately hear peoples’ stories and emotional responses so they can move beyond denial, despair and depression and move more quickly into action.

  2. […] This weekend’s post talks about the fear and frustration of climate scientists. It discusses articles which have recently appeared in Esquire and Slate, documenting the angst and even despair of scientists who every day are looking at evidence that, to them, points toward environmental apocalypse. The article says, […]

  3. I followed Jason Box on twitter. I never noticed any problem with his communication skills and his preparation for the worse to protect his daughter is sobering but wonderful. I see no problem with Rignot’s communication. Honest assessment is always the best communication and if it’s too late to prevent massive glacial melt it needs to be communicated to the public so the public has the same opportunity to protect their daughter or son like Jason Box. If 100% efforts need to be shifted towards adaptation then not saying so is immoral and if scientists are seen as immoral then science might as well be politics. The only concern I have with communicators would be those communicators that do not want to tell the truth that ice melt can’t be stopped and who then mislead the public into thinking that actions other than adaptation offer some faux benefit or hope.

    From my personal standpoint if my efforts to reduce my CO2 from 4.6 tons/year to 2.6 tons/yr by buying an $40K electric or fuel cell car are useless, I would prefer to use the money to prepare for survival. Listening to Rignot and looking at Box’s actions are both excellent communications in my view and it helps me shift my efforts from CO2 reduction which is ineffective, to survival preparation tactics which can still give me/my children a chance. The very least action I will be taking is to have a detailed conversation with the 2 climate scientists in my family, the two that I trust most, to determine which course I need to take to best protect my family.

  4. jpcowdrey Says:

    Look out! Here comes some free advice …

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