How scientists are sounding the alarm on climate change
January 8, 2020
The planet is heating up — and so is talk about climate change. The United Nations climate talks took place in Madrid last month, youth climate activists continue to take to the streets to demand increased action and Oxford Dictionaries recently made “climate emergency” its 2019 word of the year.
Amid all this climate talk from politicians, youth and celebrities, lies another perspective, one that has been slowly but steadily growing over the last several years: that of scientists. When it comes to climate change, more scientists are using platforms outside of traditional institutions to get their message to the public.
“When we talk about climate, [it’s not enough to release] peer-reviewed papers and [attend] professional conferences,” Astrid Caldas, senior climate scientist at Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), told Earth Day Network.
Caldas echoes a growing body of researchers who feel compelled to address the general public to convey the urgency of climate action. These researchers and scientists are increasingly using social media platforms like Twitter, as well rallies, op-eds and other media to send their message.
“I’m compelled to speak out because it’s so clear to me that people are going to suffer and die,” said Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “What we do or don’t do in the next few years could have implications that ripple into geologic time on this planet.”
But this urgency isn’t coming from just several isolated scientists: Whole groups of researchers are embracing advocacy to drive home the urgency of their findings. Nowhere is this shift more apparent than recent press conferences by the international bodies of scientists that comprise the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
“The more decisively and earlier we act, the more able we will be to address unavoidable changes, manage risks, improve our lives and achieve sustainability for ecosystems and people around the world, both today and in the future,” said IPCC Co-Chair Debra Roberts in September after the panel published its special report on oceans and cryosphere. “We need to mobilize at scale and work together to pull resources at multiple levels across scales.”
The use of this kind of language — which goes beyond scientific jargon and peer-reviewed research — is a relatively new way of communicating for many scientists. But as the planet warms, scientists are increasingly doing everything in their power to inform the public of what’s at stake, and just as importantly, what can be done. The result has been a growing body of science advocates.
As far as cutting our carbon emissions, precious little has changed in the three decades since the public first became aware of the fossil fuels’ influence on the climate. Instead, we’ve seen a steady uptick of carbon dioxide emissions every year for the last 30 years, hitting record-high levels of carbon dioxide again in 2019.
While politicians have remained slow to meaningfully address increasing emissions — and the public generally disinterested — things have started to change lately, stemming primarily from the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5 degrees Celsius of Global Warming, which was released in October 2018. This report put the world on deadline: a dozen years to halve global emissions to avert the worst effects of a climate catastrophe.
“I think that the IPCC special report for 1.5 degrees of warming was a key event,” said Kalmus. “That basically clearly stated that we needed to start acting as a global civilization immediately.”
For the last decade, Kalmus has been advocating change, recently writing in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times that his journey to advocacy has been a long road that “often felt like a lone voice in the wilderness.” When I spoke to him, however, that feeling had changed.
“Once the seal is broken and scientists start speaking out more, it becomes easier for the rest of them to do it,” said Kalmus. “Now it feels like a mass movement and there’s momentum.”
Much of that momentum has been driven by the recent youth climate movement and its global climate strikes. In September 2019, 4 million people turned out for the global climate strike, and another 3 million people took to the streets the following week. Since then, organizations like Extinction Rebellion and Sunrise Movement have used mass civil disobedience and weekly climate strikes, the tool of choice for climate organization Fridays for Future, to send their message.
“I think there’s a very strong element of change in the climate tides,” said UCS’s Caldas, reflecting on the recent youth climate strikes. “The fact that new groups and new people are coming into this movement together — I think it’s going to be very helpful for us.”
The IPCC’s 1.5 degree report marked a turning point, providing the urgency to drive advocacy among scientists and students alike. It’s not uncommon to hear at climate-striking events, “We only have ten years to save the planet.” Many youth activists are using the “house is on fire” analogy, popularized by 16-year-old Swedish activist and Fridays for Future founder Greta Thunberg, to spark change: If your house was on fire, after all, you wouldn’t drag your feet to put it out — you’d grab a bucket of water and frantically get to work.
“There’s a shift now where climate is being seen, in my opinion rightly, as an emergency,” said Kalmus. “I think it’s time for scientists to pitch in and accelerate [emissions reduction] the best we can.”
Climate science is unlike other sciences
Climate scientists know more about how the climate is changing and what it means for our future than anyone else, including journalists, world leaders and the general public. And the more scientists know, the more they may feel compelled to share, especially when it comes to a topic as far-reaching and potentially devastating as climate change.
“We know so much right now about what is going on right now is linked to climate change and how it is going to worsen in the next decade or two,” climate scientist Kim Cobb told me. Cobb is the director of the Global Climate Change Program at Georgia Institute of Technology. “It’s literally abdication of duty to not point out how communities have to come together, how sectors have to collaborate,” she said.
There are, however, definite barriers to climate communication.
The science behind climate change is notoriously complicated, with models and projections extremely difficult to make, given all the variables that affect climate (though a report out last month showed how strikingly accurate previous reports have been). And then there’s the psychological aspect of approaching climate change.
“Some people prefer to pretend [climate change] isn’t going to affect them,” said Caldas. “Polls have shown that people who do understand the climate is changing… they still say it’s not going to affect them directly, which is pretty amazing.”
Making things more complicated is that there’s no easy fix or silver-bullet solution to the climate crisis. What’s required, instead, is transformative change at every level, from our energy systems to our economies to even our individual lifestyles. When it comes to climate change, changing our individual lifestyles can mean eating less meat, flying less, driving less.
But to challenge these deeply held traditions is to challenge culture — after all, what’s America without barbeques, airplanes and Henry Ford? When their lifestyle, comfort and culture feel threatened, people naturally get defensive. And that’s when politics come into play.
The politics of climate change
In the U.S., Americans deal with another major detractor to climate action: partisanship. Climate change, and even science in general, has been so politicized that decisions are increasingly driven by party lines, not peer-reviewed research.
“I think the biggest problem [in informing the public about climate change] is that people see this as political speech,” said Cobb. “The landscape is such that defending science means being drawn in to a partisan landscape that I never asked to be a part of.”
Climate change has become political and partisan, whether we like it or not. People tend to hold similar beliefs to their family, friends, coworkers — in other words, we tend to associate ourselves with certain groups and align our thoughts and beliefs with those groups.
“When you throw in something like climate in the mix — and it’s not something that’s specifically regulatory, but it’s something that affects the environment and people and our lives — people will try to follow that same lead, you know, to belong in those same groups,” said Caldas.
When I spoke to Kalmus, he was en route to Des Moines, Iowa, where he was scheduled to speak at a presidential campaign rally for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. I asked Kalmus this was a political speech, and he ensured there’d be no mention of politics in his talk.
“I just want to say, ‘Here’s the science, this is an emergency, we should unite behind the science,’” he said. Science is a “political cover,” said Kalmus, that gives politicians the ability to propose policies that are “commensurate with the climate emergency.”
With so many emotions and biases at play, it’s no wonder it’s hard to act, much less sound the alarm, on climate. So, how do scientists cut through this barrier?
How to talk climate change
Advocacy is an enormous challenge for science communicators and the media alike. But scientists hold a unique and powerful weapon — information — that if yielded and deployed properly can drive change.
“We are so behind the curve [on climate mitigation] that we need to use best available scientific information to help communities prepare for the ongoing climate impacts that are raining down,” said Cobb.
Presenting staggering facts and figures is one thing but getting people to act on this information is another. So, how do we begin to engage with the public to transform all this science into action? Caldas thinks it can start with conversation, conversations that cut through the politics of climate change and brings out the values we share.
“If we have values that are similar, then we can really connect over that value and discuss things in a more civilized manner as opposed to being in completely polarized opinions,” said Caldas. “Instead of antagonizing people or trying to patronize or be a know-it-all… always try to engage people in the conversation about what is it we see that we can agree is happening? What do we have in common?”
Kalmus deals with this barrier by using accessible, practical language free from institutional jargon. An advocate of climate striking organizations, Kalmus supports grassroots mobilization and individual action and is vocal about it. In a recent tweet, Kalmus, replying to a user who asks how to become a climate advocate for structural change, wrote the following:
While global and national policy shifts are necessary to transition to a green economy, collective action that pressures politicians and forces these policies starts with individual actions like these recommendations by Kalmus.
One need only to look to the first Earth Day to see the cascading impacts of individual action — only a handful of people organized the first Earth Day in 1970, which turned out 20 million people. The day is largely credited for sparking the environmental movement and the cascade of environmental legislation that followed: the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
How to walk climate change
These individual actions, no matter how small, may be the first step on a lifetime journey to greater and more ambitious actions, setting off a domino effect that leads to mass mobilization and collective change.
“By engaging and being part of the climate solution with the tiniest steps that you can mindfully do is very empowering,” said Cobb. “If we start to work together, we can start to get our snowball rolling in the other direction.”
Cobb said that while the first step is probably the hardest, once we start changing, it’s easy to get others on board. In 2017, Cobb started biking to work. This wasn’t an easy decision for a mother of four children, but it was one that was manageable and within reach, she told me. Now she’s having conversations with her neighborhood board, joining biking groups and advocating for safe biking infrastructure in Atlanta, where she lives. She knows she’s playing a long game but also realizes that she has influenced others through this one decision.
“I am watching the effects of my biking within my social life and my family,” she said. “It is impactful. Several people have started biking who would never have had I not jumped on my bike.”
And biking to work is just one thing we could all be doing. There are so many adjustments for a greener lifestyle, from your meals (eating a plant-based diet and limiting food waste) to your daily commute (biking, taking public transportation or even skipping flights altogether).
Kalmus and Cobb recently co-authored an op-ed in The Washington Post with David M. Romps, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, advocating for less flying. Both Kalmus and Cobb have since given up flying altogether.
“For us and for many other Earth scientists, dramatically reducing our personal carbon footprint has become a moral imperative and a lifelong pursuit,” they write.
Flying is extremely carbon-intensive, and though it only makes up about 2 percent of global human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, its hour-for-hour carbon footprint for every individual is unmatched (it’s also an emitter typically reserved for the global elite, raising the issues of climate justice and inequality).
As David Wallace-Wells writes in his long-form essay “Uninhabitable Earth,” published last year in New York Magazine, “Every round-trip ticket on flights from New York to London, keep in mind, costs the Arctic three more square meters of ice.”
In 2011, Kalmus sat down and calculated his own carbon footprint. The results were shocking: Flying took up a huge portion of his individual carbon footprint, accounting for more than two-thirds of his annual emissions. Kalmus then set out to dramatically cut his emissions from 20 metric tons of CO2 a year to less than two, a three-year journey he outlines in an article published in Yes! Magazine.
Scientists, more than many other professions, must travel for their jobs, attending conferences, summits and research collaborations. The decision not to fly can limit professional opportunities. Kalmus and Cobb, however, think it’s worth it.
“For me personally, [not flying] has been wildly enabling and led me to wildly escalate my activity across a number of scales to deeper and deeper levels and with more and more vision and purpose on a daily basis,” said Cobb.
Cobb and Kalmus believe an open conversation about the carbon impact of flying could help change the culture around research, perhaps leading to invitational change. Instead of holding a conference that requires everyone to fly to, maybe the next conference may allow people to video call in to give presentations. Meanwhile, Cobb told me she took a no flying pledge for 2020, which already led her to skipping at least one conference (detailed in a pretty interesting Twitter thread).
“These are growing pains that are going to have to happen before we transition into a low-carbon future,” said Cobb.
All is not lost
Perhaps the hardest part of talking about climate change is that our very lifestyle — our flights, consumerism, cars — continues to drive climate change, despite feeling integral to our way of life. The focus, therefore, must be creating a new future, one that our children can thrive in, even if it is drastically different from the world we knew.
“[Youth climate activists] remind us that they are not going to accept the assumptions that [have been] baked into the American system for decades now,” said Cobb. “And good for them because we going to need their energy and passion to remind us that nothing is set in stone.”
But these children need adult allies as well. If we’re going up against the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced, we need everyone on board. That means politicians, workers, students, teachers — and yes, scientists — coming together and to advocate for a new way forward. If we don’t unite, we risk losing not only our children’s future, but everything that makes us human.
“Every tenth of a degree of warming is going to make things much worse,” said Kalmus. “It’s going to increase the suffering and the death. It’s permanent.”
Science is integral to overcoming this challenge. The latest reports should be alarming, but we can’t be scared by them so much that they immobilize us. Instead, we need to learn from the youth climate strike movement and treat those reports as fuel to drive arguments and compel action. We need science to help inform decisions, to pressure people in power to make changes. But science, though necessary, is only one part of climate action.
“The science can only take us so far,” warned Kalmus. “The advocates and the humanists and the sociologists and the activists have to take us the rest of the way.”