Should climate scientists tell the public how dire the climate crisis is — in particular, whether it threatens to bring civilization to an end in the not-too distant future?
The occasion for this article was a tweet about a year ago by a highly respected climate scientist, glaciologist Jason Box. After reading a report about the discovery of more than 100 new sites in the Arctic where methane is seeping out, he wrote: “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d.”
Having gone viral, the tweet inspired many headlines, such as: CLIMATOLOGIST: METHANE PLUMES FROM THE ARCTIC MEAN WE’RE SCREWED. Many fellow climate scientists would not disagree with Box’s assessment, given the fact that, as a greenhouse gas, methane is much more powerful than carbon dioxide.
(My recent book on climate change, Unprecedented, is subtitled, Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis? But in the chapter discussing “ecosystem collapse and extinction,” I pointed out that the book might better have been subtitled, Can Civilization Survive the CO2-CH4 Crisis?)
Although Box’s tweet was not out in left field, his new employer did not appreciate his statement. Having left the United States, mainly because of the rampant climate denialism in this country, Box moved to Denmark, where he now works for the Danish government.
The government is very supportive of Box’s work, but it did not, in Richardson’s words, “take kindly to one of its scientists distressing the populace with visions of global destruction.”
Richardson’s essay is focused on the internal struggle of Box and other climate scientists with the issue of how to deal psychologically with the devastating climate facts, which their vocation forces them to face daily.
Box tries to block out such facts from affecting his emotional life, saying: “If I spend my energy on despair, I won’t be thinking about opportunities to minimize the problem.” But he often fails, as he is obsessed with “the human suffering to come” — an obsession that is intensified by the fact that he has a very young daughter.
How Much to Say, How Frankly?
But I am here focused on a slightly different question: Should climate scientists frankly tell the public just how dire the situation is? On this question, there are differences of opinion within the climate community.
One climate scientist who was angered by Box’s tweet was Gavin Schmidt, who now has the position that was long held by the world’s best-known climate scientist, James Hansen. Schmidt told Richardson:
“You don’t run around saying, ‘We’re fucked! We’re fucked! We’re fucked!’ It doesn’t incentivize anybody to do anything.”
In response to Richardson’s probing, it became clear that Schmidt agrees that the situation is very serious, saying: “The business-as-usual world that we project is really a totally different planet.”
So in part, Schmidt’s disapproval of Box’s tweet was strategic: He rightly felt that if climate scientists publicly announce that all is lost, they will undermine the motivation of people to do what they can.
But in part, Schmidt’s disagreement is based on a difference of opinion about whether there really is no hope. For example, he believes the situation in the Arctic is not as dire as Box thinks. And although he recognizes that, in spite of all the scientific warnings, business as usual has continued, Schmidt says that “things can change much quicker than people think,” citing changed attitudes about gay marriage as a case in point.
However, this is a poor analogy. Whereas overcoming the prohibition of gay marriage did not threaten the bottom line of any powerful companies, the idea of overcoming the fossil-fuel economy is so threatening that fossil-fuel companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to avoid this eventuality.
But Schmidt has a more valid argument. Although civilization will indeed be destroyed if the world continues with business as usual, “There is time to build sustainable solutions,” said Schmidt, to at least some of the problems.
If all hope is indeed lost, any such solutions will not make any long-term difference. But the truth is that nobody knows for sure whether the effort to save civilization is already futile. This may indeed be the case.
But for all we know, it is also possible that, although climate change will bring about multiple horrors, including the death of large numbers of people, a rapid and worldwide mobilization would allow for the continuation of civilization in a form in which worthwhile lives would be possible.
Given this possibility, our scientists should not suggest that all is lost, because retaining hope that a worthwhile civilization could still be salvaged would be a condition for success. If we become convinced that there is no hope whatsoever, we will certainly not do the many kinds of things that will be necessary if a civilization of some sort is to continue.
Avoiding Paralysis of Both Types
But the importance of holding this degree of hope does not mean that scientists should not tell people the seriousness of the situation. To conceal the full truth would make scientists behaviorally not much different from the moderate climate deniers, who assure people that the changes will be minor, so that society need not switch to a completely different energy economy.
It is understandable that governments do not want scientists to distress the populace. But it may be necessary for humanity to become distressed, if there is to be any chance of its taking action quickly and vigorously enough to save itself. Indeed, in some cases governments do not want their scientists telling the full truth because, if their citizens believe it, the government may be forced to take action.
The present approach by governments, the media, and even the climate science community — reporting some findings but not so as to get most people alarmed – has not worked. Neither the media nor the people have become focused sufficiently on the threat to force their governments to engage in the full-scale mobilization needed if there is to be any hope.
Many pundits say that telling people the full truth will frighten them so much as to paralyze them. But the present method has left them with a paralysis of ignorance. One type of paralysis is as unhelpful as the other.
Telling the Full Truth
Instead, scientists, governments, and the media should treat people as adults, knowing that only if they know the truth do they have a change of acting appropriately. They should tell them the full truth, while at the same time telling them the full truth about how completely and inexpensively the transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy could come about (which I laid out in Chapter 17 of my recent book).
Most of us, if we have cancer, want our doctors to tell us the truth, so that we can decide upon the best course of treatment. Or, if the cancer has gone too far to be treated, most of us want to know this fact, so that we can do all the things we want to do before we die — getting our affairs in order, saying good-bye to friends and loved ones, and doing remaining things on our bucket lists.
Some climate scientists, and commentators about climate science, have spoken forthrightly. For example:
Science writer Elizabeth Kolbert warned that our “technologically advanced society” is now in the process of “destroy[ing] itself.”
Pulitzer Prize-winner Ross Gelbspan wrote that global warming “threatens the survival of our civilization.”
And Lonnie Thompson, Box’s former Ohio State University colleague, said that, although climate scientists are “not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies,” they are speaking out because “virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.”
However, because of the lack of publicity for these statements, probably not one person is a thousand has been aware of them. The media, focused on increasing their revenue from advertisements, daily convey the message that our civilization will continue indefinitely. The sponsors insist on this, primarily because they are, sadly, more concerned with their own wealth than the welfare of the planet.
Even the best of the news programs, such as those headed by Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes, devote most of their time to daily and weekly crises, rather than the crisis of civilization.
Moreover, only a small percentage of the leading climate scientists have come out with statements like that of Lonnie Thompson. A recent study, pointed out Richardson, showed that climate scientists have been led by the relentless campaign against them to avoid statements that might get them labeled “alarmists.”
This is understandable. But in certain situations, such as when your building is on fire, being an alarmist is the only responsible behavior.
Of course, when climate denialists refer to climate scientists as “alarmists,” they mean that they are saying alarming things that are not based on facts — that they are crying “wolf” when there is none.
But climate scientists know that their worries about the survival of civilization are fact-based. So their message to the rest of us should be: “If you are not alarmed, you do not understand the situation.”
The truly alarming state of the planet can be illustrated by the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which is Box’s area of specialization. If it were to melt completely, it would raise the world’s average sea level about 23 feet, which would, Box pointed out, “destroy all the coastal cities on earth.”
How much warming beyond the global temperature in the 19th-century would it take to begun the process of “irreversible loss,” which would lead to complete meltdown? Startlingly, Box said: “The answer is between 2 and 3 degrees [Celsius].” This is sobering, contradicting the claim of some pundits that civilization could survive a 4-degree increase.
But even if the process of irreversible loss begins, it has widely been thought that the complete meltdown will be far in the future. However, Michael Mann, probably the world’s best-known climate scientist aside from James Hansen, said to Richardson:
“Maybe it is true what the ice-sheet modelers have been telling us, that it will take a thousand years or more to melt the Greenland Ice Sheet. But maybe they’re wrong; maybe it could play out in a century or two. And then it’s a whole different ballgame — it’s the difference between human civilization and living things being able to adapt and not being able to adapt.”
(Moreover, whereas the Greenland ice sheet is now melting much faster than experts had expected, the same thing is also happening to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which if totally melted will add another 20 to 25 feet to the sea level.)
However, while being forthright about the dire situation we are in, Mann balances the warmings with developments that provide hope:
“We can solve this problem in a way that doesn’t disrupt our lifestyle. . . . Public awareness seems to be increasing, and there are a lot of good things happening at the executive level: tighter fuel-efficiency standards, the carbon-pricing initiatives by the New England and West Coast states, the recent agreement between the U. S. and China on emissions. Last year we saw global economic growth without an increase in carbon emissions, which suggests it’s possible to “decouple” oil and economic growth. And social change can happen very fast.”
Of course, these are baby steps in comparison with the huge steps that must be taken in the next two or three decades. But at least a start has been made, and various things, such as the Pope’s encyclical, might inspire the kind of worldwide mobilization that is needed.
Naomi Klein, reporting on her experiences at a Vatican conference based on the Pope’s encyclical, spoke with amazement at the radical changes he is seeking to bring about in his church. She then added:
“[I]f one of the oldest and most tradition-bound institutions in the world can change its teachings and practices as radically, and as rapidly, as Francis is attempting, then surely all kinds of newer and more elastic institutions can change as well. And if that happens – if transformation is as contagious as it seems to be here – well, we might just stand a chance of tackling climate change.”
Climate scientists should tell people the full truth about how dire the situation is, while simultaneously reporting the full truth about how quickly and completely the fossil-fuel economy could be replaced. If they do, and if governments and their media report these facts clearly and repeatedly, we just might be able to prevent the complete destruction of humanity and even human civilization, along with most of the other forms of life. We should at least try.