Warning: You might want to put on a helmet because I’m about to beat you over the head with some harsh realities. But, keep reading, because this is important.
First off, let me say—Climate change sucks. It’s inescapable (unless we make drastic changes), will affect everything that happens on this planet, and the bad is going to outweigh the good.
As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states in their Fourth Assessment on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability:
The costs and benefits of climate change for industry, settlement and society will varywidely by location and scale. In the aggregate, however, net effects will tend to be more negative the larger the change in climate.
- The resilience of many ecosystems is likely to be exceeded this century by an unprecedented combination of climate change, associated disturbances (e.g., flooding, drought, wildfire, insects, ocean acidification), and other global change drivers (e.g., landuse change, pollution, over-exploitation of resources).
- Projected climate change-related exposures are likely to affect the health status of millions of people, particularly those with low adaptive capacity, through:
- increases in malnutrition and consequent disorders, with implications for child growth and development;
- increased deaths, disease and injury due to heatwaves, floods, storms, fires and droughts;
- the increased burden of diarrhoeal disease
- the increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground-level ozone related to climate change; and,
- the altered spatial distribution of some infectious disease vectors
As an ecologist, I read things like that IPCC report every day and it can get pretty overwhelming. The most upsetting part being that climate change is becoming more pronounced, the news becoming more dire. For example, take this summer’s record low Arctic sea ice which is estimated to have the cumulative warming effect of an additional 20 years of CO2 emissions. Yikes. The increased warming is due to the open water absorbing heat from the sun, rather than reflecting it back toward space as the ice would have.
Speaking of depressing things that happened this summer, last month I attended the annual Ecological Society of America Conference and found it packed with equally bad news. It felt like a litany of presentations on dying forests, droughts, fires, melting glaciers, crashing fisheries, and so on. There truly was an impending sense of doom. And while not every talk made me want to bury my head in the sand and cry, the overall feeling was certainly gloomy. Gloomy enough to push journalist Hillary Rosner to write:
“…the gloom overload raises a pesky question for me as a journalist. If I can’t bear to hear the news, how can I communicate it to the public? What sort of articles — or books — should I be writing? Where is the balance between grim facts and hopeful innovations? How can I continue to write about what I believe is the most important topic of our time while maintaining my sanity?”
Important questions indeed– How do we as ecologists, science journalists, and citizens of this planet convey the urgency of this problem without leading people (including ourselves) to decide that we’re already screwed, so what’s the use?
Me–I honestly don’t know the answer, but hope that this post will generate some discussion on how we as a community should move forward.
I do have some thoughts on what not to do. In what I consider to be perhaps the worst approach I’ve seen, I’ll point toward a recent article and subsequent interview with Nathan Myhrvold and climate scientist Ken Caldeira. Their article titled ‘Greenhouse gases, climate change and the transition from coal to low-carbon electricity’ states “We show that rapid deployment of low-emission energy systems can do little to diminish the climate impacts in the first half of this century.” Or, put another way, if there’s to be any hope of keeping climate change within even a semi-safe range, we need to transition immediately to a carbon-free energy base that cannot include lower carbon options like natural gas. Fair enough, after all, that’s what the data say. However, in the follow up interview (here comes the really bad part) with Dave Roberts from Grist, Myhrvold drops this bomb, which is pretty much enough to drive anyone off a cliff:
“One thing we wanted to point out is how hard the problem is. There are many advocates who say that it will be easy to switch to a low-greenhouse-gas energy solution. They have a great “can do” attitude, but their schemes are hopelessly flawed. To beat one dead horse, that little book ‘50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth’ — well, it’s at best wishful thinking and at worse deeply disingenuous. Those “simple things” are not going to save us. At most they can let you foolishly think you are actually accomplishing something when you are not.”
What am I supposed to do with that? My first reaction was anger. Then sadness. Then slowly a sense of defeat washed over me. Eventually though, I got mad again. Because frankly, that’s a terrible message; one that leaves me feeling powerless and without hope.
Now that some time has passed, what I’ve come to realize is that while riding my bike to work, eating less meat, and turning the lights off when I’m not in the room may not solve all of our problems, it does leave me feeling empowered and like I’m contributing toward the solution in my own small way. And I need that. I need it to keep me sane and motivated until we as a society are ready to make the massive changes that are necessary.
So, while I still don’t have the answer to Hillary’s question of “Where is the balance between grim facts and hopeful innovations?” . . . I do know that I need to do the little things, that we all need to do the little things. Because if not, then we’ve given up.