Esquire Falls into the Despondency Trap—We’re Not “F’d” on Climate Change

, former science communication officer | July 14, 2015, 8:53 am EDT
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John H. Richardson has published a despairing profile of climate researchers in Esquire, where he examines the existential dread they sometimes feel as they study the effects of industrial carbon burning. In particular, he focuses on Jason Box, a climate researcher whose blunt Twitter message went viral last year:

While Box’s statement is conditional, saying things like “we’re f’d” has a clear implication to most people: we are trapped and our actions won’t matter. That’s an unhelpfully depressing sentiment. It also doesn’t have the benefit of being true. Climate change is a major civilization-wide challenge – it’s among the biggest risks we collectively face as a species, right alongside nuclear war – but the extent of future climate change depends largely on a number of human choices we continue to make every day.

Climate change doesn’t make me feel despondent or “f’d.” It makes me feel like we need to keep working on solutions.

We face very different climate risks and very different levels of ‘f’d-ness’

The title of the piece overstates climate risks in a fundamental way: “When the End of Human Civilization is Your Day Job.” While climate change is very risky and aspects of it will be terribly difficult and damaging, it’s not about to make our planet uninhabitable nor is it going to turn the world into Mad Max: Fury Road.

Humans have enjoyed a relatively stable climate over. That’s changing and the range of future warming depends mostly on decisions we make about industrial carbon burning and clean energy.  Source: a delightful blog about electric cars on Tim Urban's

Humans have enjoyed a relatively stable climate over the past several millennia. That’s changing and the range of future warming depends largely on decisions we make about industrial carbon burning and clean energy. Source: a delightful blog about electric cars on Tim Urban’s

But let’s not kid ourselves either: certain parts of the planet will no longer be “home” for many people. The early warning signs are already here, from encroaching tides to families that have chosen to leave island homes. Many other low-lying coastal regions and island nations are slated to be swallowed by rising seas. That won’t happen overnight, though. In most cases, it’ll take decades and, in some cases, centuries, a point I wish the Esquire piece had gotten to more quickly.

Additionally, as temperature and humidity rise, some parts of the world are projected to have unbearable summers during which it will be impossible to be outdoors. It’s hard to imagine people will want to live in those places.

Both of these things are tough to think about. But it doesn’t mean “we’re f’d,” certainly not in the sense of our entire species or all of human civilization disappearing.

As NASA scientist Gavin Schmidt explains in the Esquire article: “The business-as-usual world that we project is really a totally different planet. There’s going to be huge dislocations if that comes about.”

That’s a more precise formulation. And while those dislocations will happen all over the world, it’s also obvious that people from less wealthy nations, including places like Bangladesh and Tuvalu, will have a harder time adapting than people in places like New York City, for instance, which is recovering from $2 billion worth of sea level rise-related damage during Sandy.

Similarly, we should recognize that the communities that have been supplying the world with coal and oil have a lot to lose, too, and they shouldn’t be forgotten in the transition to clean energy, either.

Given these circumstances, it’s hard not to feel bummed out. And it also means that we have an obvious moral responsibility to come together as a species and deal with it. It’s a challenge worth rising to as a people and the fact that so many people are already rising to it gives me hope.

A young woman who lives in the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, which is home to about 10,000 people. Scientists expect many places will become uninhabitable due to climate change as sea levels inundate coastlines and islands and as temperature and humidity rise, making it impossible for people to go outside unprotected for extended periods of time in some parts of the world. Image source:

A young woman who lives in the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, which is home to about 10,000 people. Scientists expect many places will become uninhabitable due to climate change as sea levels inundate coastlines and islands and as temperature and humidity rise, making it impossible for people to go outside unprotected for extended periods of time in some parts of the world. Image source:

Scientists are legitimately very worried about climate change, more so then they tend to let on in public venues

The main thing I do like about this article is that it gave scientists a venue to say what’s often on their minds, but goes unexpressed in public. And scientists should certainly feel comfortable expressing their feelings and values.

After all, I wish more people could put themselves in scientists’ shoes. To Earth scientists, dramatically increasing the amount of heat-trapping carbon in our atmosphere over a period of a few decades can sound like a crazy thought experiment. But it’s not.  It’s what industrial carbon burning is actually doing to our planet.

You’d be freaked out, too. And you would be justified in feeling overwhelmed, and frustrated, and taken aback by what one of my colleagues referred to as a sense of “profound brokenness.”

That said, while no one has ever formally studied the efficacy of the “we’re f’d” message on climate change, I’ve seen plenty of people tune scientists out when they convey despondency or when journalists convey despondency on their behalf. Scientists who regularly communicate about climate risks owe it to their audiences to make it clear that there are significant differences between a lower and higher-emission future. And it’s worth pointing people to what is being done and what can be done to address those risks.

For instance, Texas Tech University’s Katharine Hayhoe, who is probably the most positive climate researcher I know, told Slate that she likes living in an area that she describes as “ground zero” for some aspects of climate change. “If I personally can make a difference,” she said, “I feel like Texas is where I can do it.”

But can we really feel positive about the prospects for addressing climate change? Yes!

In the Esquire article, Michael Mann describes how he would like his daughter to think about his work: “I don’t want her to have to be sad,” he says. “And I almost have to believe we’re not yet there, where we are resigned to this future.”

I think that’s a solid attitude for those of us who have internalized just how damaging climate change could be. Resignation is clearly not the answer. After all, even if climate change is a huge bummer, what are we going to do about it? A lot, it turns out. And despite a multi-decade campaign from ideologues and fossil fuel lobbyists to block climate action — the world is addressing climate change anyway.

The bright spots are incredibly bright: look at what’s been happening in California, on its own one of the world’s largest economies, as the state adopted a comprehensive climate plan:

Believe it or not, this is a stupendously exciting graph. Economic growth with reduced emissions is having our cake and eating it, too. Source: California Air Resources Board

A stupendously exciting graph from the Golden State. Economic growth with reduced emissions is having our cake and eating it, too. Source: California Air Resources Board

This a great story. And stories like it are being repeated all over the world, from growing demand for solar energy, falling prices for wind, and people in developing countries leapfrogging baseload fossil fuel energy to take advantage of emissions-free renewables.

A combination of farsighted policies, new technology, and creative financing deals are doing a lot to address climate change. And while we certainly need to do more, I’d much rather concentrate on building upon that momentum than give into despair.

After all, Winston Churchill didn’t rally Britons by telling them they were f’d. He posited that hard work — blood, toil, tears, and sweat — would lead to victory.

And in the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt did not tell Americans they we were f’d. He told us to stop being afraid. And he said that unemployment, “…is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.”

And if an asteroid the size of Texas were headed for our planet, we wouldn’t say we’re f’d and give up. Our best scientists and engineers would get to work and steer that thing away from our planet. And if they failed at first and some people thought all hope was lost, they would try and try again because that is what humans do in the face of adversity.

Pick your hero: they surely had dark moments, but they never gave up.

Dr. Mann put this well in another venue – a letter, one of many from scientists, discussing how they feel about climate change. As he wrote, we can have complex, conflicting feelings about climate change. But “…at the end of the day, it is actually hope, among all my conflicting emotions, that wins out for me.”

Hope wins for me, too. I hope it does for you, too.

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  • BT Hathaway


    I do not understand the breathless excitement over the graph posted in your article. A limited congratulations to California, since during a period of GDP growth they managed to keep their emissions essentially level, but we need total net reductions on the order of 80% to 90% in order to begin stabilizing the climate. And one particularly energy progressive state is not necessarily representative of any net progress globally. By one measure I have read, we aren’t projected to reach peak carbon around the world until 2029 (and who knows whether such a projection is reliable).

    F’d? Well I can appreciate the despair narrative. If you’ve been trying as a climate scientist to communicate climate issues for any length of time, exhaustion does set in after a while. Most of the people I know have only the vaguest idea that climate might be an issue “one of these days” but with no sense of imminent responsibility or urgency to act.

    We must find for ourselves and for the public at large, a cheerful determination to act knowledgeably and persistently to reduce our climatic impacts on every conceivable level. Science and technology is not sufficient by itself (fossil fuels remain dollar-for-dollar, dramatically more energy dense and reliable than present renewables); politics of course is fraught with conflicting agendas and is not designed to respond effectively to a global commons problem such as this, though progress will be made; much will need to come from the “grass roots” of our world, billions of everyday people determined to salvage and the restore our home through billions of everyday choices.

    That is where I have begun to put my energies via and may the world find many more ways to engage in the personal consumption transformations needed to diminish and eventually eliminate our current disastrous carbon footprint.

  • And as Box has also made clear, his statement was conditional. I think a lot of people don’t hear that because the latter part of the message is a bit more of a gut punch.

  • Sky High

    Meanwhile, in the real world; Arctic ice coverage is the highest it’s been in about a decade. Global sea ice coverage is about average and Antarctic sea ice coverage is 4th highest for the day. And we’ve still had no warming for 18 years.

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  • Arctic clathrate and permafrost melt = extinction of humanity.

    Let’s not pussyfoot around that.

    • How would every human die? I don’t believe that and have never seen an analysis that says that’s the case. Climate change daunting, it’s terrible, it’s costly, it’s risky, but I also encourage folks not to overstate the case for action, which is already pretty darn strong.

      • Abel Adamski

        It is not a matter of every human will die. Our technology and civilisation may well collapse and we revert to feudal city states at war with each over resources where human life is cheap.
        Note what is happening in the Arctic circle, the possibility raised that the Antarctic ice sheets are far less stable than believed. Methane levels rising
        We have hit 1C above 1880.
        The oceans are rather warm and el Nino is building and building.
        I would humbly suggest the positive feedbacks are starting to have an element of dominance and we are rapidly approaching the point where only extreme action will save our future.
        Even pulling CO2 out of the air won’t do it, too much in the oceans to come back and the permafrost is melting and the water in the clathrate pipes is slowly warming.
        Lets just say we are assuming the bend over and clasp your ankles position

      • Bruce Parker

        Because of the positive feedbacks, we have already reached the point where only albedo modification can keep the temperature from eventually exceeding 4 degrees C. But no one will talk about it. We are definetly f’ked – all we can do is to delay the inevitable.

      • BryantFinlay

        We’re actually not screwed. The only positive feedbacks that truly matter are the marine hydrates in the Arctic and the permafrost soil emissions. If you bothered to follow the research on such topics, which clearly you don’t, you would rapid changes from those are uncertain. A recent synthesis by some of the best observational permafrost scientists in the world concluded that emissions from all the arctic permafrost was likely to be gradual this century and the next. This is supported by other recent studies as well. And observational scientist Patrick Crill recently concluded that microbes absorb most of the methane from shallow hydrates. All in all, these are very potent threats, but the evidence to suggest abrupt release is not there. With a little luck, that should stay the case 🙂

      • Bruce Parker

        The research that I have done indicates that we DO need to worry about the positive feedbacks:

        The Arctic region is currently warming about three times as fast as the Earth as a whole (.42 degrees/decade for the Arctic vs .15 degrees/decade for the Earth as a whole), primarily due to the melting of summer-time sea ice (which is happening much more quickly than the IPCC models expected – see Figure

        “Although northern peatlands are currently a net carbon sink, … they are a net source of CH4 [methane, emitting an] equivalent [of] 6–12% of annual fossil fuel emissions of CO2” (about .67-1.33 GTC or 2.4-4.8 GTCO2) (April 2014)

        “As climate change thaws Arctic permafrost and releases large amounts of methane into the atmosphere, it is creating a feedback loop that is “certain to trigger additional warming,” according to the lead scientist of a new study investigating Arctic methane emissions.” (May 2014)

        “It [(permafrost melt)] was first proposed in 2005. And the first estimates came out in 2011.” Indeed, the problem is so new that it has not yet made its way into major climate projections, Schaefer says.” …”None of the climate projections in the last IPCC report account for permafrost,” says Schaefer. “So all of them underestimate, or are biased low.” … “It’s certainly not much of a stretch of the imagination to think that over the coming decades, we could lose a couple of gigatons per year from thawing permafrost,” says Holmes…. But by 2100, the “mean” estimate for total emissions from permafrost right now is 120 gigatons, say Schaefer.

        “Since the year 2000, the rate of absorbed solar radiation in the Arctic in June, July and August has increased by five percent. … When averaged over the entire Arctic Ocean, the increase in the rate of absorbed solar radiation is about 10 Watts per square meter.” (Dec 2014)

        Since the Arctic Ocean covers about 2.8% of the Earth’s surface, this is equivalent to about .3 W/M2 for the entire Earth. With an increase of about .77 degrees C for each w/m2 increase in “radiative forcing” (, this represents about .2°C of warming, or about 100 GTC (based on 800 GTC raising the temperature 1.6°C)

        (from Arctic News –

        Professor Wadhams estimates the present summer area of sea ice at 4 million square km, with a summer albedo of about 0.60 (surface covered with melt pools). When the sea ice disappears, this is replaced by open water with an albedo of about 0.10. This will reduce the albedo of a fraction 4/510 of the earth’s surface by an amount 0.50. The average albedo of Earth at present is about 0.29. So, the disappearance of summer ice will reduce the global average albedo by 0.0039, which is about 1.35% relative to its present value.

        As NASA describes, a drop of as little as 0.01 in Earth’s albedo would have a major warming influence on climate—roughly equal to the effect of doubling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which would cause Earth to retain an additional 3.4 watts of energy for every square meter of surface area.

        Based on these figures, Professor Wadhams concludes that a drop in albedo of 0.0039 is equivalent to a 1.3 W/sq m increase in radiative forcing globally.

        The albedo change resulting from the snowline retreat on land is similarly large, so the combined impact could be well over 2 W/sq m. By comparison, this would more than double the net 1.6 W/sq m radiative forcing resulting from the emissions caused by all human emissions to date.

  • Your ‘we’re not F’d’ response fails to mention the methane clathrates–the ultimate F**ker in Jason Box’ original tweet. And you also fail to mention the problems facing industrial civilization–the way we run things won’t work in a planet with expensive energy and century storms hitting on a yearly basis. Any hiccup of the electrical grid risks meltdown of our nuclear reactors, a situation that would seal the deal on mass extinction. I’ll grant you that we are at a point where hope may be in extremely short supply. Does that justify propagating a ‘kumbaya’ kind of lie that we can all pull the world out of this situation if we buy more fluorescent light tubes and recycle all our paper? I expect better science out of an organization with ‘scientists’ in its title.

  • Gerry Patey

    Sorry to be confused here. The expulsion of carbon dioxide in the Arctic is not to be sweated. It is the methane which continues to bubble up into the air which is.

    • Scientists sometimes broadly refer to carbon-based heat-trapping gasses as “carbon,” including CO2 and CH4 (methane). I think that’s what Dr. Box meant.

  • Dano2

    To me it is about time scale. I am not effed. My tween daughter will not be effed, but she’ll be effected. If she for some odd reason chooses to reproduce, her kid will not be effed but may suffer. If that kid makes a mistake and reproduces, that kid will be effed.

    So it is a moral choice: do we buck up and (uncharacteristically, against history) do the right thing and work to solve the problem? We probably won’t because we are just clever animals an – like all animals – will enjoy a population correction and the species will try to recover, like so many have done before and will do after.

    But our brains make moral and ethical constructs and some people will try. Maybe that’s enough for the 90% who won’t try.



    • Thanks, D. I think that’s a very fair point. That first graphic I shared above could perhaps have a time-scale on it, too. The other gnarly aspect of climate change, of course, is that it gets locked in for millennia lest we figure out some way to suck carbon from the air.

      I think the “what world do you want your kids to inherit” standard is a good for most public policy. I feel convinced that fostering opportunity, growing prosperity and expanding human freedom also requires handing our kids and great-great-grandkids a more stable climate. All the other things in the world we think are important are simply harder to achieve if the world continues to rapidly warm.

      That said, when I look at places like Miami and Tuvalu, climate change is a very here and now discussion and people’s ability to deal with it varies widely, largely based on how rich they are.

  • I reached out to John H. Richardson, who wrote the Esquire piece, with this post. He made a very fair point in response: Churchill and Roosevelt didn’t have to convince anyone they were ‘f’d’ or under threat of being ‘f’d’ at the time because it was “blindingly obvious.” I agree and I wish I’d made that point above.

    To be clear, I think scientists — and science communicators — have to convey both the stakes of locked-in and potential climate damage and the varying risks we will face as a result of climate choices we are making today. That latter point is where hope lives. It’s something that a lot of natural scientists aren’t comfortable communicating about, but it’s often what public audiences expect from them. As I noted above, “Scientists who regularly communicate about climate risks owe it to their audiences to make it clear that there are significant differences between a lower and higher-emission future. And it’s worth pointing people to what is being done and what can be done to address those risks.”

    Richardson also pointed out that the response to his piece demonstrates some weaknesses with the standard dispassionate public messages scientists convey about climate change. I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I was so impressed with the Is This How You Feel? project linked to at the end of the piece.

    • christine turvey

      We are not at present completely, irrevocably “f’d”. The atomic clock may show 3 minutes to midnight but we do have those 180 seconds to assess the situation re climate change worldwide. We can take those 3 minutes and increase funding for research into climate change, review our most promising actions to reduce emissions of carbon monooxide/methane etc. increase public awareness of the nature and immediacy of dong the right thing (s), pressure our governments/big business/fossil fuel producers/meat producers/automobile manufacturers into re-examing their role in climate change.
      Churchill also said “never give up, never give up, never give up.”
      For our own and our children’s sake, we can and MUST heed his advice.

      • Thank you for reminding me of that other Churchill-ism. I’d add that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists clock you reference above can also move backwards.