Then and Now

Sometimes I look back to 2010 and wonder how we all got through it. I remember the stomachache I’d get every time I opened a newspaper, wondering what awful lies had been printed about climate science that day. I remember the disdain with which people treated the science I love and the scientists I look up to. 2010 was the year when climate change conspiracy theories went mainstream, and the year when the whole issue was a lump of dread I carried around in my pocket.

Things are easier now. The climate system is in really bad shape (and it can only get worse from here), but somehow I find this fact easier to deal with than the judgement of well-meaning, but highly misinformed and misled, people. Maybe this is because I find human conflict scary but graphs and numbers comforting. Or maybe I am just too good at thinking of model simulations as hypothetical.

In my own way I am in denial, because when I think about my future I always picture a world without climate change.

Regardless, the attacks on our integrity have largely abated, and everything feels so peaceful in comparison. Part of this, of course, has to do with policy: the misinformation campaign “ClimateGate” was clearly timed to derail the Copenhagen talks, the likes of which won’t happen again for another few years. I think there is another factor, though, which will protect us the next time around: the scientists are now officially pissed off.

As scientists, we are shy creatures by nature (remember what I said about human conflict and graphs?) but even we can be provoked. Recall that we have discovered important information that could be vital to the future of our civilization, and yet there are many who seek to discredit us and make sure this information is not taken seriously. When those people go so far as to slander and harass individual researchers, nearly to the point of suicide, they have stepped on all of our toes. We are mad scientists, but not in the cartoon sense.

Now, when deniers attempt to construct a scandal, it doesn’t get off the ground. Scientists are there immediately to set the record straight, and the media realizes it is a non-story. When shady politicians try to press charges against researchers, those researchers hire accomplished lawyers because there is a fund for that now. Geoscience conferences  feature so many communications workshops that you could attend nothing else if you chose to. Scientific societies are publishing handbooks on how to respond if your research is publicly attacked, you face charges of fraud, or you fear for your safety.

I like this new attitude of climate scientists. Forget the old paradigm that scientists should steer clear of political speech and stick to pure research. We didn’t give up our rights as citizens when we decided to be scientists. Maybe 2010 was a necessary evil, because it made us realize that we have a responsibility to fight for truth.


23 thoughts on “Then and Now

  1. I think your outlook is unreasonably upbeat personally. Our ancestors have effectively left us a destroyed ecosystem (and we seem to be largely perpetuating their legacy). I think many climate scientists are frankly rather distant and naive from the front lines of climate change – or even the ones in the field are too narrowly focused on their single area of expertise to appreciate the grimness of the bigger picture.

    Relatively mild climate shocks can (and have) destroyed civilisations and modern civilisation is arguably rather fragile in many respects (it is predicated upon a complex web of global inter-dependencies). There are a number of psychological reasons why most people are unable to properly absorb and relate to highly negative information and accordingly even knowledgeable people still prefer to put the horrible future rushing towards us decades away (my opinion is that it is only years now).

    There are plenty of people for whom life has always been a struggle and to whom climate change already represents a serious threat (or lethality). While the human world is complex and it is not fair to attribute only climate change to events within it – I believe it is already a factor driving conflict and social breakdown in some parts of the world. I think the world is capable of changing far more abruptly and significantly than the nice gentle computer models that have been constructed and are overly relied upon to try to forecast the future can predict – I think paleoclimate is a far better place to look for answers. I would listen to James Hansen, Peter Wadhams, etc rather than to the IPCC papers for forecasts.

    There is no sign of responsibility being taken on by the rich and powerful – or even the collective masses. Emissions of carbon dioxide continue to climb, there are signs of serious positive feedbacks taking off in the system (some that can be expected to run away within only years at most), and our species continues to fiddle as Rome burns. Even under the tame IPCC forecasts we appear to be committed to levels of warming that can reasonably be expected to be catastrophic (excepting last minute geoengineering – which would be rather desperate given the limited timescales to attempt it and the failure to address the root causes of the problem over many decades).

    Accordingly my outlook is one that would not be comfortable to most wealthy or educated people (of which I am neither). It isn’t a nice outlook to contemplate – but I am preparing for the failure of modern civilisation.

    What more rational options are there?

    • Actually, I think you said it quite well – by saying in your own way you were in denial. I agree with that – and the simple fact you’re capable of admitting it is a sign of a certain amount of intellectual honesty and bravery.

      That opens up a rather interesting point as I think a lot of the battle against climate change (if it were to be fought properly) must occur inside the human mind – with human psychology (which in some ways is both root cause of the problem and the barrier to solutions of almost any sort).

      Why do you not think about your future in terms of how climate change may affect it? Can you mentally contemplate that future and confront it? If you can – how do you approach that process? Is that approach one other people could repeat?

      An analogy if I may – a nuclear scientist helping to design a better atomic bomb can live in a world dominated by graphs and numbers and equations. When that bomb is dropped, the poor sod on the ground experiences something approximating to hell on earth. Same bomb – two totally different perspectives.

  2. Good post Kate.

    I guess we are all in some kind of denial – even us who are trying to address the problem openly – thanks for the eye opener…

    • If I had a penny for every time someone significantly older than myself has said “I feel sorry for you lot”…

      To steal a phrase from another commenter on another site – climate change “isn’t just for the grandchildren any more”.

      I applaud the spirit of the link you posted – but want to note – in even the “nicer” scenarios for the future, people of my age and that of the author of this blog face some very bad things down the line (I happen to think they will happen sooner and faster than most people, and actually affect almost everyone living today).

      I wouldn’t “spend less time on climate research”. Climate scientists offer the best and last collective hope for people – that they can find solutions, albeit at this very late stage in the day and after decades of ignored warnings (and anti-science and vicious attacks as noted in the post).

      Even in the absence of such solutions, I’m perpetually fishing around for communication with knowledgeable scientists who can help me understand what to expect in the medium and long term future. This sort of understanding can help to plan even for the worse case end of the scenarios (short of an all out methane catastrophe at least).

      It is past time people undertook a paradigm shift – to start to care for those who are younger – including those who are not even here yet. If our ancestors had taken this outlook my generation would not face this situation today.

  3. On another website I said climate modelers are scary, paleo climatologists more so, but the scariest of all are the biologists that understand climate change. After mentioning catastrophic cascading failure, I stated that I did not think our civilization could survive.

    My new garden does not contain any food plants. I did plant drought tolerant, but no food. So I too have this disconnect between I I know the future holds and what I do to get ready.


  4. > I would listen to James Hansen

    She is listening to James Hansen. James Hansen said Barack Obama has 4 years to save the planet. That was when he was first elected. Thus, there is nothing to be done at this point.

    Hence the part about
    The climate system is in really bad shape (and it can only get worse from here),

    • There is everything to be done at this point!

      Firstly, there may yet be some feat of technology, ingenuity and determination that our species could mount that would alter the course of events and provide a collective hope for the masses – though if time has not already run out, it certainly almost has.

      Secondly, the failure of our current modern civilisation is not automatically the same thing as total extinction of our species. While I think modern civilisation is highly unlikely to weather this we aren’t going to entirely destroy the planet and there is a reasonable chance even in scenarios towards the worse end that some areas remain habitable as a niche habitat at least for our species.

      Finally I am simply not the sort of person to meekly admit defeat, throw up my hands and say “nothing to be done”. Almost my whole life has been lived in some sort of adversity (notwithstanding that I’m not exactly an old man yet). I do not depend upon the soft comforts and inherent subservience (or dependence) to the system implied in western societies, despite having been born in and growing up within one.

      The most certain way to fail is never to try, and to think something impossible is often to make it so.

      It is a common mistake to extrapolate from oneself and those around you to assume what everyone else is like – I am sure there are people out there who will achieve truly remarkable things in the face of great adversity. If all else fails, I simply aspire towards that.

  5. Some need to apologize to future generations more than others do:

    Exclusive: Billionaires secretly fund attacks on climate science
    Audit trail reveals that donors linked to fossil fuel industry are backing global warming sceptics

    Top climate scientist denounces billionaires over funding for climate-sceptic organisations

  6. Kate. Any glance at the denialosphere shows them still in uber confident mode hammering in “the last few nails in the great AGW hoax” daily. Unfortunately too many of their ideas still resonate strongly with too many of the public who get their world view from newspaper articles, TV and radio.

    Whether their arguments are scientifically valid or not is almost irrelevant in their effect in the minds of the voting public – they just need to sound plausible to spread doubt and uncertainty, and this they have done very well.

    In order for the large scale changes we need to have a hope in hell of stopping the worst possibilities from fully manifesting, we need the public, the vast majority of the voting public to be fully on board and accepting of what needs to be done. This will only happen when the majority understand that what they are told they are risking, really is a serious high probability risk.

    The standard way the science gets through to the public has turned out to be not effective enough against the tidal waves of sophisticated propaganda. We need another way.

    Here’s a copy of a potential way to break the deadlock, that I posted to Climate Progress, that I think could do with wider exposure. We need to aggressively go after the pathological sceptics in the full glare of publicity.

    click for link to comment (which I saved on my blog)

    Hopefully it might raise a little more interest and comment here than it did there!

    • How are you defining lukewarmer? What makes you think Lindzen is one?

      Another problem I see is that if you want to go after skeptics in debate, shouldn’t you include them in the debate to expose their ridiculous arguments?

      • @MikeN there’s nothing wrong with discussing things with sceptics. There’s everything wrong with trying to discuss anything with someone in denial.

      • Lukewarmers think climate sensitivity is a lot less than the generally accepted figure, therefore they think that doubling or quadrupling of CO2 will only raise temperatures a bit =lukewarm.

        Lindzen claims that his work shows sensitivity is a lot lower therefore he is a lukewarmer. Q.E.D

        “Sceptics” tend to be lukewarmers anyway. Those who call themselves sceptics yet believe and spread the “ridiculous arguments”, that I suggested should be skewered, style, in full page newspaper ads, are more correctly described as pathological sceptics – or as plain and simply in denial of reality.

        Of course genuine scientific sceptics do not fully acknowledge any position as the absolute all-time truth but these are not the ones who are causing all the trouble, deceit and misdirection.

      • OK, but I think the lukewarmer position has generally been taken to mean a more moderate level of warming, say 2C. See Thomas Fuller’s Lukewarmers Way. I would classify Lindzen as a skeptic. The two do overlap, as both are on the low end of IPCC estimates, but I think Lindzen and Spencer would say warming is negligible.

      • I recently saw a comment by Steve Mosher at WUWT (on one of my very rare visits) that said Lukewarmers accept climate sensitivity to be most like between 2 and 4C for a doubling of CO2. In taht case, the IPCC are representing mostly Lukewarmers.

        IMHO, the old Lukewarmer category is gone by the board and is not mainly a category defined by emotion or politics – people like Pielke Jnr, Curry, Moster et al fall into that camp.

        Lindzen is a denier not a “sceptic”, recently he has been repeating tired old myths like “in the 1970s there was global cooling hysteria”. It is sad to see a once world-class scientist demean himself.

  7. Nick, do you have any attempt to influence Chinese policy in there. Chinese coal consumption in 2012 is equal to the global consumption excluding China in 2000. China and India in 2030 could equal total global energy consumption in 2012.

  8. Great post. I thought I was the only one who felt that way.

    It is hard sometimes to remind ourselves that we are not supporting a team, but that science and getting at the truth, no matter how tough or unpalatable, is the greater good.

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