Those words have actually escaped the mouths of people with whom I’ve interacted recently, not necessarily in the same breath or in that order. The alarmist trope is not worth discussing, but it is still a favorite of full-on ‘climate change’ deniers. The accusation of dishonesty though can be found across the spectrum from active deniers to passive doomers. More on that below. But when a student (in the US) asserted that people don’t trust scientists because of classism – all scientists must be wealthy in order to have attended school long enough to earn a PhD - it piqued my interest. Another complained that the specialist jargon used in the peer-reviewed papers that I made them read was ‘elitist’ and intentionally designed to obfuscate the scientific work from non-specialists. Hmmm…..
I wondered if these misunderstandings could extend to the general public. I’ve long been curious about how others arrive at ‘truth’ about the climate and ecological crises without the structure of scientific consensus. So last week I participated in a discussion about the multiple overlapping crises that our modern world is facing, with a group of people from many different paths to this point.
Eventually, the conversation turned to a familiar theme:
‘There’s nothing we can do; we’re doomed’
and variations on it:
‘I want to go out smiling, not fighting!’
‘I don’t think we’re alone in all of this’ - cue cosmic intervention.
So, being the science geek that I am, I offered the scientific consensus: that climate models suggest if we stop destroying carbon sinks and emitting greenhouse gases, the climate would stabilize rather quickly. The timing of that of course, is critical; the sooner we stop, the more likely it will be that we (and all other living things and earth systems) can survive in that new climate.
The response? “Well climate models aren’t FACTS”
Of course they’re not. But they are our best educated guesses about what future climate could be like, and it turns out that most of them, even from the 1980s, are pretty good at their jobs. Even Exxon scientists predicted global heating in the 1970s that was pretty much spot-on. If anything, climate models err on the side of caution, like science in general. We are experiencing impacts today that climate models predicted wouldn’t happen for another 10 years or so – and that is to be expected.
I’ve written about why we should trust climate scientists before, and it still surprises me when I encounter casual rejection of scientific consensus. I suspect that the person in this discussion discounted climate models because they conflated the IPCC scientists with government inaction and stalling. The implication was that IPCC scientists were not to be trusted; they were either:
1) Incompetent (“My friend says that you could drive a truck through the errors in their models”), or
2) In cahoots with the fossil fuel industry/government/nefarious forces to hide ‘the truth’ from us that things are much worse than they say.
Things are worse than the published IPCC reports say, but that is no secret to anyone who understands how science works. If anything, we scientists are guilty of not doing a better job of explaining how science works to the general public. But we were never trained to do that.
The IPCC and scientists in general were not and are not trained to be communicators of science to anyone but their peers and graduate students (who, by the way, are admitted based on merit, do not pay tuition, and receive a small stipend to live on while completing their degrees). Some of this is by necessity - it takes a long time and intense study to become a specialist in a scientific field, and any specialty needs 'jargon' that is not easily accessible to outsiders (car repair, marketing, even farming). But most of it is by design in our increasingly capitalist higher-education system. Teaching - learning to communicate the jargon effectively to non-specialists- is not valued or rewarded, and in cases of tenure review or promotion - is actively discouraged. Most science graduate students finish their degrees without ever having taught a class, let alone having been taught how to teach. Many universities now have two 'tiers' of professors: those who only teach, and those who only do research. Guess which ones are more highly rewarded through salary and benefits?
So no wonder that the IPCC is not brimming with scientists adept at communicating their results to the general public. They are simply not trained to do it. Plus, the IPCC's audience is not the general public, it is government officials from countries who are part of COP (the UNFCC Conference of the Parties). They even have 'last edit' rights on the Summary for Policy Makers, which is the report that most journalists read and report on. In their latest science report in Fall 2021, the plain language on what the science says we must do in response to the climate emergency was edited out and watered down by these government officials. No conspiracy theory here - this actually happened.
Additionally, the IPCC model scenarios for future climate are based on global shared socioeconomic ‘pathways’ – hypothetical CO2 emissions from a range of plausible future worlds - and all of them include continued global economic growth, even though many scholars and economists are urging a departure from that paradigm. This is not the choice of the scientists running the models – it is a political choice made by politicians. If IPCC scientists were allowed to publish models based on post-growth economic scenarios that include a rapid just transition and equitable redistribution of wealth, a different world would emerge. The paralysis and despair about overshooting 1.5 degrees C, the inadequate and empty promises of ‘Net-zero by 2050’, the magical thinking of techno-optimism, falls away and what is left, is possibility.
Frustrated by the systemic difficulty of communicating the climate and ecological emergencies to decision-makers, many scientists are turning to activism to get the message out. Prominent climate scientists and allies are choosing to risk their freedom, social status, and careers to participate in civil disobedience. One was recently fired from her job at a government research laboratory for simply holding up a banner at a major scientific conference. Others are making public the very personal emotional costs of possessing a deep understanding of the losses we are witnessing, in the hope that by humanizing scientists, their work will be better understood and believed.
So what do we do? Everything we can do. Tell the scientific ‘truth’ and explain how it is reached as often as possible to anyone who will listen. Acknowledge, accept, and share the emotions that come with that knowledge. Support and train people; either scientists to communicate the climate science more effectively, or journalists and neighbors to understand that science and talk to people about it. I am trying to do both, and it is not easy. Not only because I often start on my heels, having to explain first that climate scientists are not elitist, ‘captured’, liars, or alarmists that should not be trusted, but also because most people really don’t want to accept that we could stabilize the climate right now if we chose to. That climate and ecological breakdown is a choice, as complicated as it is simple.
That little nugget of ‘truth’ brought to us by scientific consensus makes us feel helpless, hopeless, angry, defeated, and generally uncomfortable, because the task seems impossible. It complicates things because it opens the possibility of out-of-our-comfort-zone action, when it is easier to embrace passive simplicity in acquiescence, denial, navel-gazing, or rejection of science. But knowing what is necessary to minimize climate and ecological catastrophe - that it is physically possible, that we could save billions of life forms (including humans) from suffering and untimely death if we act quickly and decisively, that it is worth trying our damnedest - should guide all discussion about what actions to take in response to our overlapping crises.
Thanks, climate scientists.