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

July 14, 2015
Aaron Huertas
Former contributor

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 WaitButWhy.com

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 WaitButWhy.com

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: AfricaGreenMedia.co.za

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: AfricaGreenMedia.co.za

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.