I have to admit that I have a difficult time figuring out what to write on this blog without being so gloomy. My intention is to write about “big changes” happening in the environment, because they are fascinating and I think we need to be prepared to make good decisions about them. These are incredible times simply because there are so many changes happening … it’s almost too much to take in.
However, the most common way of telling a story of environmental change often focuses on a dire announcement, using the doom-and-gloom approach. “The population bomb will lead to famines.” “Cancer-causing chemicals are killing us.” “Climate change is causing mass extinction.” Fear sells. We all know that. But after a time this pessimistic story gets a bit heavy, and if the predictions don’t turn out to come true then people start to lose interest.
For example, in 2006 James Lovelock predicted what would happen as a result of climate change in an opinion piece, saying
“before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.”
Ack! Great sound bite, but where did that come from? I don’t know of any scientists who were predicting this kind of future then or now. (Of course, he was coincidentally promoting a book that he just published.)
Recently, Lovelock stated in an interview with MSNBC that now agrees that his statements were “alarmist”. He still believes that climate change is happening, but just not occurring as fast as he suggested. I’m not sure this apology really helped matters very much. I wish he had simply stuck with legitimate predictions in the first place.
Predictions of climate change made by scientists in 2006 were not as stark, and they haven’t changed much since then. In fact, scientific predictions of climate change haven’t changed a whole lot in the past 30 years. In 1981, James Hansen — a well-respected climate scientist — predicted temperature increases that turned out to be incredibly close to what actually happened. The main thing that changed since then is that thirty years of climate data now confirm his work.
I like to think of scientists like turtles, slowly finding their way to a better understanding of the world. Getting to the truth doesn’t come overnight, it takes a long time to win the race. But, unfortunately, the turtle story is not so interesting. If you stick to the scientific story there’s usually not much doom-and-gloom.
However, James Hansen is now thirty years older and getting a little rambunctious. He’s recently been more vocal about what we should be doing about climate change. You can imagine that working for decades on the same scientific issue might get a little tiresome if no one seems to be paying much attention to the story you have been telling. Recently, he wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times discussing what would happen if we added oil from the Canadian tar sands to our standard list of greenhouse gas sources:
“That level of heat-trapping gases would assure that the disintegration of the ice sheets would accelerate out of control. Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilization would be at risk.
If this sounds apocalyptic, it is. This is why we need to reduce emissions dramatically.”
Scientists aren’t supposed to speak out in such ways … and a few fellow scientists have criticized his approach. But when scientists do start to speak up people tend to listen. The problem comes when people start losing their trust that scientists are using evidence to make their case.
So, how do we discuss environmental changes truthfully, avoiding the exaggerated headlines, but still in an interesting way? And without the gloom and doom? That’s a tall order. Any ideas?