The Scariest Climate Science of All

Andy Revkin videotaping glaciologist Joe McConnell in Greenland in May, 2004 (image courtesy Joe McConnell)

Around 2006, having spent more than two decades writing about the science behind global warming, I started digging into the research revealing why humans are having a hard time responding to this deeply consequential challenge. That was the scariest science of all, by far. Below, you can read the relevant section of an essay on 30 years of climate learning, and unlearning, that I was invited to write by two very different magazines — Issues in Science & Technology (the magazine of the National Academies of Sciences) and Creative Nonfiction. I’ve added links and some art.


For 20 years, I’d been reporting on climate change as a mechanistic geophysical problem with biological implications and technical, economic or regulatory solutions. As a science writer, I was so focused on the puzzle that I had, I suddenly realized, neglected to consider why so little was happening and why so many people found the issue boring or inconsequential.

As I dug deeper into studies of human behavior and risk misperception — a different kind of science — much of what I learned posed potent, nearly existential questions, especially for a journalist. Like many of my friends in environmental sciences and journalism, I had long assumed the solution to global warming was, basically, clearer communication: fresh innovation in mixing pictures and words, video and graphics, different metaphors. If we could just explain the problem more clearly, people would see it more clearly, and then they would change.

There were countless attempts, often relying on metaphor:

Climate is your personality; weather is your mood.

Carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere is like water flowing into a tub faster than the drain can remove it — and the drain is getting clogged. (The bathtub effect!)

The greenhouse effect is building like unpaid credit card debt. Reducing spending doesn’t eliminate the debt.

There was, of course, the simmering frog failing to jump out of the pan.

On my blog, I tried breaking the language down to clear up disputes over which climate science conclusions were established and which remained uncertain, creating a graphic in which the steepness of curves reflected the level of understanding.

In response, Russell Seitz, a playful physicist who’s long been a constructive critic of overheated climate conclusions of all kinds, sent me a variant that beautifully, if exasperatingly, reflected the limits of this kind of messaging.

As it turned out, he had science on his side. Empirical studies and a batch of surveys pointed to a set of biases, reflexes, and cognitive filters that almost guaranteed failure in trying to galvanize broad action on global warming given the long time scales, enduring uncertainties, geographic spread and lack of quick fixes.

One finding, by the British climate communication expert George Marshall, obliterated one of my longstanding assumptions — that people with children were more likely to be concerned about climate change because of its impact on their offspring. He found that, in fact, parents often appeared less concerned because they were so fixated on the day-to-day challenges of raising a family. Then there’s status quo bias (we overvalue the way things are); confirmation bias (we select information to reinforce established views); motivated reasoning (even when we think we’re thinking objectively, we’re not).

An illustration by Kathy Zhang for a Dot Earth post — “Humanity’s Long Climate and Energy March

I looked into the “cultural cognition” research of Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale with the animated mannerisms and wardrobe of Quentin Tarantino. Among a host of sobering findings, he showed that scientific literacy abounded at both ends of the spectrum of beliefs on global warming. So I tried a little experiment: I sifted for Nobel laureates in physics who’d expressed strong views on global warming. It turned out there was one to suit just about anyone’s argument, from deep worry to total unconcern.

As a journalist in my fifties, pondering how to make the most of the rest of my productive years, this was a more profound blow than that stinging email from former fans years earlier. It was even worse than hearing Rush Limbaugh, from the other side, suggesting in 2009 that if I really thought people were the worst thing for the planet, I should just kill myself.

Ultimately, the insights that these findings revealed helped drive my decision late that year to leave full-time reporting for academia. (Of course, journalism itself was going through profound changes at the same time, and my growing conviction to try new paths fortuitously coincided with an attractive buyout offer.)

The job title I concocted for my position at Pace University — Senior Fellow for Environmental Understanding — was meant to reflect that I was still pursuing ways to make information matter, but in a new way. My Dot Earth blog moved to the Opinion side of The Times in 2010 but, as I stated at the time, my opinion was still that reality matters.

I hardly gave up communicating. In fact, I write more than ever, and I teach others how to make the most of the rapidly changing online information environment. It’s changing even faster than humans are changing the biophysical environment.

And the more time I’ve spent focusing on that sobering behavioral research, the more I’m realizing that it points to distinct opportunities to make progress on climate-smart energy steps and policies that can create more resilient communities. Paradoxically, though, in some instances this would require something odd: not talking about global warming at all. Most powerfully, a recent nationwide analysis by researchers at Yale and Utah State University found that although asking questions about global warming reveals muted passions on both ends of America’s deeply polarized political map, asking different questions can mute the differences. For example, both red and blue voters strongly support investing in more research on renewable energy sources and regulating carbon dioxide as a power plant pollutant.

No Red-Blue Divide (from @dotearth)
No Red-Blue Divide (from @dotearth)

There are plenty of other examples across the board. There are libertarians who crave the taste of energy independence that comes with a rooftop solar panel. There are liberals who hate the idea that taxpayers should pay the bill when people who build repeatedly in flood zones get reimbursed under federal insurance policies that don’t reflect the real risk.

[Watch this great John Sutter CNN report from a bastion of climate skepticism, Woodward County, Okla., to get the idea; read more here.]

And as that national survey showed, there is widespread support for invigorating this country’s lagging investments in basic sciences related to better battery technology or solar panels, more efficient vehicles and electrical grids, and possibly even a new generation of nuclear plants. It’s time: American investment in basic research in energy-related sciences has been a dribble for decades compared to the money poured into science in other areas such as defense and homeland security or the cancer fight.

And yet, it’s important to remember that science doesn’t always lead in directions you might expect.

Take, for example, fracking, shorthand for the hydraulic fracturing technology that has greatly expanded access to oil and gas reserves that were thought to be untappable. The roots of this technology lay in federally funded research that sat dormant until pioneering energy entrepreneurs, spurred by declining gas and oil supplies, adopted it. (I’ve been supportive of tightly regulated fracking, but recognize that this leads to a longer tail on the era of gas and oil than those proclaiming Peak Oil foresaw.)

Here’s the other problem: Science doesn’t tell you what to do.

The climate scientist Ken Caldeira, who studied philosophy in college, likes to paraphrase the 18th century philosopher David Hume in describing the line between values and data: “You can’t get an ought from an is.”

A cartoon by Perrin Ireland (@experinnment) conveying a point made by Andy Revkin

In the end, it is values and instincts and particular circumstances — economic and environmental and cultural — that determine what individuals and societies do. In open societies, and in a variegated global discourse on climate vulnerability and energy access, that means there will be inevitably be divergent stances and tradeoffs.

Those of us with a science bias expect that proper research will lead us to a menu of objective fixes. But you have to realize that even a passion for investing in science as the source of answers is the result of a value judgment.

It was Pete Seeger who helped me understand this as we sat in the kitchen of his hand-hewn home tucked high on the wooded shoulder of the Hudson Highlands overlooking Newburgh Bay. Pete was a friend and neighbor, with whom I’d been singing and conversing since I moved to the Hudson Valley in 1991.

Andy Revkin singing with Pete Seeger (and David Bernz) in 1993 and 2010

He recalled how his father, a musicologist, used to prod friends who were scientists: “You think that an infinite increase in empirical information is a good thing. Can you prove it?”

Pete then described how his father would then exclaim that faith in science is no different than faith in anything else.

“Face it, it’s a religion,” Pete said.

Numerical goals, for example, are fine as first steps in considering options, and they provide a useful rallying point for activists. But to me it seems they are being wielded as some hybrid of science and moral authority — Moses’s tablets inscribed with Einstein’s equations. For global warming, the reality remains a sliding scale of interrelated choices and outcomes, as John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, has been pointing out for many years, and as each of five Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports on climate science has found. There are no clearcut choices — only a mix of mitigation of emissions, adaptation to impacts, and suffering.

The intensity around numbers and particular strategic goals, like convincing Obama to kill the Keystone tar sands pipeline extension, has driven wedges between climate and energy factions who might otherwise have been allies. In 2013, grappling with the intertribal tensions over how to end our oil addiction, I did some Web searching for the terms “response … diversity … environment” to see if anyone had explored how or whether environmental campaigns might tolerate common, but differentiated approaches to progress.

I admit it was personal. I was tired of being called a “hippie puncher” and VSP (“very serious person”) by the liberal green blogger David Roberts for arguing that whatever President Obama chose to do about the pipeline, oil demand had to be addressed or despoliation of the environment (whether in Canada or elsewhere) was inevitable.

My Google search turned up a remarkable 2003 paper on the sources of ecosystem resilience by Thomas Elmqvist of Stockholm University and others. It included this line:

The diversity of responses to environmental change among species contributing to the same ecosystem function, which we call response diversity, is critical to resilience. Response diversity is particularly important for ecosystem renewal and reorganization following change.

As I read it, I pondered whether the following slight tweak might also be true:

The diversity of responses to environmental change among people contributing to the same social function, which we call response diversity, is critical to resilience. Response diversity is particularly important for social renewal and reorganization following change.

Can the environmental movement find room for diverse strategies?

I hope so. It’s utterly human to have varied responses to change and challenges — in this case, humanity’s intertwined energy and climate challenges. I see great value, for example, in the work of students and academic colleagues pursuing divestment from fossil fuel companies. To me, there’s particular merit in examining investments and divestment as a path to putting ossified terms and norms under fresh scrutiny. Is a school’s endowment more than its financial investments? Is fiduciary responsibility limited to preserving assets measured only in dollars and cents? Are trustees of a company, university or planet responsible only for sustaining values measured that way?

But I also see the value in engaging with — dare I say it, even working for or investing in — big companies as a way to test the possibility of building a different culture from the inside out.

Rather than looking at either strategy as right or wrong, I see both as part of a broadening commitment to a new and durable human relationship with both energy and climate.

One thing that this approach requires is a willingness to accept, even embrace, failure and compromise.

A helpful metaphor came to me in a conversation about a decade ago with Prof. Joel E. Cohen, the director of the Laboratory of Populations of Columbia and Rockefeller Universities. He said that after the sprint of the last couple of centuries, humans would do well to seek a transition to a more comfortable long-distance pace more suited to adulthood than adolescence.

Walking, he reminded me, is basically “a controlled forward fall.” It is a means of locomotion by which one moves steadily ahead, adjusting to bumps or hurdles, even trips and collisions, shifting course as needed but always making progress toward the desired destination.

Essentially, societies need to find a way to fall forward without falling down.

The prismatic complexity of climate change is what makes it so challenging to address, but this also means everyone can have a role in charting a smoother human journey. I’ve come to see the diversity of human temperaments and societal models and environmental circumstances and skills as kind of perfect for the task at hand. We need edge pushers and group huggers, faith and science, and — more than anything — dialogue and efforts to find room for agreement even when there are substantial differences.


You can read the full article online — including the section about this Jewish science writer’s epiphany at the Vatican in 2014 — in the winter edition of Issues in Science & Technology or buy a paper copy of Creative Nonfiction.

I recently discussed the article and my 30 years of climate-change learning, and unlearning, with the editors of the two magazines at the Koshland Science Museum in Washington.:

A rich conversation with the audience followed:

And the discussion continues on Dot Earth.

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