Writing or otherwise discussing the future climate of Earth is … not always easy.
We are not going to become Venus 2
It is incredibly easy to misstate the potential impact of global warming because it is incredibly easy to misunderstand either the timing or the scale of the warming. Stephen Hawking, who I don’t think I need to introduce to any generally-aware-of-science audience, got into the news a week ago for doing so.
“Trump’s action could push the Earth over the brink, to become like Venus, with a temperature of two hundred and fifty degrees, and raining sulphuric acid.”
I still don’t entirely understand what he meant by Venus having a temperature of 250° (the surface temperature of Venus is not 250°F or 250°C or 250 K. It’s 250°C, 250°F and 250K at certain heights of the atmosphere, if you want accuracy...) and it would be very difficult to get Earth’s surface temperatures to 250°, uh, for F or C or K; all of those would be difficult. Absent any incredibly futuristic technology, making Earth into Venus 2 is impossible.
But it is possible to heat Earth up by single or maybe even low double digits of Celsius degrees of warming. We already have caused a degree or so of warming relative to a ~1850-1950 baseline, so causing 1 or 2 or 3 more by 2100 isn’t unlikely.
The positive feedbacks
Where things get difficult to forecast is in trying to figure out when and how much warming, and secondary reactions to the primary warming, will occur in the next few centuries. One of the reasons for difficulty here is that there are no good geological analogues for our current situation. Yes, there are natural global warming events in Earth’s past. That we are in an interglacial right now, that low-elevation lands at middle latitudes are not covered by thick glaciers, is because a small pulse of global warming occurred, ending the last glacial maximum and causing most continental glaciers to retreat. But that wasn’t caused by a large change of geologically-sequestered carbon into atmospheric carbon. Likewise, we know of hyperthermals, of events in the prehistoric past wherein higher than recent surface and ocean temperatures were made even warmer by the quick introduction of large amounts of lithified carbon into the Earth’s atmosphere. But those didn’t happen during relatively cold climates.
As far as we know, we have created the first pulse of global warming that occurred primarily because of the quick introduction of large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere during a relatively cold climate. And that last part is worth emphasizing because a cold Earth has larger stores of short-term-geologically-sequestered carbon: a cold Earth has relatively more carbon “locked” into places like soils and near-coastal seafloors. We have more potential positive feedbacks available; it is more possible for a small burst of warming to warm something up, which in turn would release more warming agents, to cause a positive (increased) reaction.
The land of panic
These potential positive feedbacks are the primary fodder upon which climate panic grows; there is almost no such thing as a panicked hot take on future climate that doesn’t point to one or another potential positive feedback as the trigger (or tipping point or whatever terminology they feel comfortable using) for larger-than-expected warming occurring at a faster-than-expected timescale. Those of us who have learned about/studied past climate fluctuations learn about all the layers of nuance that separate climate panic from climate reality: Earth systems are not as resilient as we might want them to be, but they are often more resilient than panicked hot takes give them credit for. There’s this very precarious line between realistic alarm and panic which people discussing climate (or modern changes in biodiversity) have to walk: we have to be upfront about the boundary between a realistic amount of alarm and an unrealistic, unjustified, defeatist, panicked approach.
An example of crossing said line?
Late on Sunday night (at least for time zones in the Americas) a New York magazine article was published with very panicked headlines: “The Uninhabitable Earth” and “When Will Climate Change Make the Earth Too Hot for Humans? Much, Much Sooner Than You Imagine” The article, although this is hindered by some errors, does an okay job of raising alarms about issues that a technically-non-informed audience might not be aware of. It, in part because of those errors, unfortunately and unintentionally comes across as being panicked, which is sort of amusing because it tries to rein that in before its first section is even done:
What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency.
Maybe those three sentences should have appeared first, maybe the article should have come with a warning label, because many science communicators took issue with its level of discourse. Michael Mann wrote that:
I have to say that I am not a fan of this sort of doomist framing. It is important to be up front about the risks of unmitigated climate change, and I frequently criticize those who understate the risks. But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.
So far New York has included three interviews that were conducted with scientists as part of the preparations for this article: Wallace Smith Broecker, Peter Ward, and Michael Mann. In the third of these, the original author weighs in with some more of his thoughts on the feedback he has encountered from his Sunday night article:
Personally, I don’t think we’re doomed, just facing down a very big challenge. But I own up to the alarmism in the story, which I describe as an effort to survey the worst-case-scenario climate landscape. We have suffered from a terrible failure of imagination when it comes to climate change, I argue, and that is in part because most of us do not understand the real risks and horrors that warming can bring, especially with unabated carbon emissions. For the sake of clarity: I do not believe that the planet will become uninhabitable in 2100. As I write in the story, our complacency will surely be shaken before we get there. But I do believe that it is important to contemplate the possibility that parts of the tropics and equator will become cripplingly hot, for instance, or that our agriculture will suffer huge losses, so that we may be motivated to take action before we get to those eventualities. And I do believe that, absent a significant change in human behavior across the globe, they are plausible eventualities.
This meta-discussion, this communication about communication wherein science communicators try to collectively figure out where the line between alarm and panic is, has been going on for as long as science communication has existed; for climatology communication it has been going on since at least the 1950s and 1960s, as the discrete science of climatology started to assemble itself from several ancestors. Fearmongering and ignoring reality both pay better and generate more attention than nuanced discussions on what precisely is wrong and how exactly we can solve it. And we have good reason to think that panicked fearmongering is not a productive mindset:
The real problem is that time and time and time again, psychology researchers have found that trying to scare people into action usually backfires. Presented with the idea that the planet that gives us life might be dying, parts of our brain shut down. We are unable to think logically.
Our brain’s limbic system is hard-wired to prioritize these kinds of threats, so we shift into fight-or-flight mode. And because the odds look stacked against us, most choose to flee. If anything, strategies like this make the problem worse. They take people willing to read something like “The Uninhabitable Earth” and essentially remove them from the pool of people working on real-world solutions.
What should climate communicators be doing?
The meta-discussion about the article has somewhat thrown down a gauntlet: if we communicators think this article is bad, then what should we be doing to communicate well? I think that any discussion on human-driven environmental problems needs to do four things:
1 Emphasize the reality of the situation. Global warming is real, here are x things we know about it, here’s why we know it is real.
2 Emphasize the human impact. Modern global warming is primarily being forced by humans, through a whole long laundry list of activities, but primarily through burning fossil fuels.
3 Emphasize the good news. Because of #2, we can choose to be less disruptive than we could be, and this will make #1 a smaller problem than it could potentially be.
4 Be aware of our own irrational responses. Because #3 only works if it is packaged in a particular way. Some audiences will never agree with an author’s message but certain factors (like the panic already discussed above, or the appearance of hypocrisy from an author or advocate) will very strongly diminish the power of a message.
A plea for accuracy
Obviously for Americans who want the US federal government to be responding to climate alarms the year 2017 is being frustrating, and I understand why that frustration exists and might make us want to be a bit more alarmist. We think that the problem is that people don’t hear the alarm so we should ring the alarm louder, when the real issue is that some people are choosing to not hear that alarm. Those people, the people who have intentionally chosen to ignore reality, are not the intended target for any climate communication. They are not going to respond to the alarm, and the rest of us will have to go to work without them. That work requires accuracy and it requires hope that humans can solve a problem if we actually apply ourselves to solving it, and avoiding panic helps both of those requirements.
President Trump will not destroy the world. He will probably not even destroy a single state* in our country, let alone our entire country, let alone civilization. So treat him the way that geological history will: by ignoring his stubborn self and creating a better world without his input.
*I’m going to be very embarrassed if this turns out not to be true