Naomi Klein, a writer whose works I’m sure most readers of this site know anywhere from passably to quite well, recently authored the article in NewStatesman, How science is telling us all to revolt. It’s a perfect example of the kind of unsettling, yet incredibly hard to refute, piece that’s appearing more often from climate communicators; I fully expect to see many more such contributions to the public dialog from Klein and other writers in the coming years.
To boil Klein’s article down further than is likely justified, it says: Climate change is even worse than most people who are engaged with the topic realize, and even the experts are feeling the greatly increased urgency of the mess we’ve created.
I urge you to read it in its entirety.
But for now, I want to comment on a few facets of Klein’s work and the topic at large:
Based on my interaction with a handful of climate scientists, I think it’s fair to say that they do indeed know that our situation is very serious. I would say that they think it’s vastly worse than the average lay person thinks the scientists think it is. This is a minor variation on the knowledge gap that many people have been talking about for years, the one between what scientists and the general public know about climate change. One could write an entire thesis on how this gap came to exist and why it persists in such a critical area, but the tent pole issues: Denier propaganda convincing people that there’s some civil war-like debate among experts over the cause and severity of climate change, and the natural reticence of many (most? nearly all?) scientists to speak out publicly on this topic, are pretty obvious.
On the issue of cautious scientists, I think not enough people appreciate the position climate scientists are in. They are highly trained, typically in some narrow and very deep field, but they are all, at their core, scientists. That means they have had it pounded into them that they should go where the evidence leads them and nowhere else. Their “intuition” and “common sense” can be howling at them to leap to a conclusion that seems painfully obvious to a lay person, but their training tells them not to do it, simply because intuition and common sense are so often wrong. The phrase “above all else, do no harm” doesn’t apply to just medical doctors.
Even in the face of this knowledge gap between scientists and lay people, we need this scientific reticence. We don’t want scientists leaping to conclusions or talking far outside their field of expertise (except as just another engaged citizen). Whenever I see someone online wailing about climate scientists not being involved enough in policy discussions while also complaining that economists meddle in science, I wonder if people have the ability to read and comprehend their own words.
Klein quotes experts talking about the need to manage growth, possibly de-growth, along with almost every other aspect of our economic lives. Sadly, this is exactly where our situation and current behavior is leading us. I’ve been talking for years about why the whole notion of the Anthropocene, “an informal geologic chronological term that serves to mark the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems”, is already outdated, and we should be talking about entering what I call the Metricene, a time when we have no choice but to “live measured lives on a managed planet”. I realize what a discomforting notion this is for people; all of our evolutionary background and for most of us nearly our entire existence has revolved around a world view that says our first priority is temporally and spatially immediate. Our default behavior is still dominated by the basic programming oriented toward getting us through the night without freezing or being eaten by a predator, finding enough to eat, reproducing and then protecting our offspring day by day, and basically not thinking about our surrounding environment except as it intersects with those immediate goals. The notion of “away”, as in “throwing something away”, “going away”, etc., is deeply coded into us; we only learn that “away” has become meaningless through education that counteracts our evolutionary baggage.
Related to this is the insanity of relying on “free markets” to deliver the kind of far-seeing, enlightened change we need and want. I would dearly love for this to be a reasonable approach, for us to be able to push government out of the way and let the econo-unicorn, the Free Market, do its magic and deliver us a safe, clean, and prosperous future. That’s such a delusional view that I find it amazing anyone believes in it. Reliance on a greed-driven, fanatical (which is to say, value-free), myopic system for such purposes has the same likelihood of success as would hiring Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant from Rain Man to design a mile-long suspension bridge and expecting it to be safe, durable, on time, on budget, and aesthetically pleasing.
So, what to make of our current situation? To some extent I think we’re once again in the situation of waiting for things to “sort themselves out” as economists like to say. I’m not referring to just the economy, but also the flow of information. We’re already seeing positive signs. As Klein points out, there are indeed some high profile climate experts who are speaking out quite forcefully on the topic, no doubt catapulted by the unrelenting, emerging science outside the comfort zone created by their training and personal natures. In those individuals we are seeing the best that science has to offer: People who are combining a strict adherence to going exactly where the evidence leads them and their compassion and humanity, and reaching the only reasonable conclusion and course of action, even if it’s one they never would have chosen.
The difficulty, as always, is timing. Climate change is the perfect example of a “super wicked problem”, and it presents us with staggering challenges because of atmospheric and infrastructure lock-in, plus all the delays inherent in a worldwide human system of systems. And those delays mean that whenever we do take action, it will necessarily required swifter emissions cuts, more onerous government intervention, more human suffering from floods, droughts, sea level rise, and more tense heat waves and storms, and more expense. If we wait too long, the question that Klein and others are increasingly bringing up — can we make the needed changes within the framework of our current economic and political systems? — looms large.
 Imagine that tomorrow morning, humanity has a worldwide epiphany about climate change and decides we simply must take swift and certain action on it as soon as possible. How long would it take before we saw a response in the natural world to our deviation from our business as usual path? We would first have to decide what actions to take and who should take them and how to translate them into public policies in different countries. (Anyone who thinks that such a step would be simple or quick hasn’t been paying attention to international and national debates over climate and energy policy.) Once we took action we would still have to live with the legacy of our emissive transgressions — mostly in the form of all that atmospheric CO2 — which would continue to cause both ocean acidification and more warming for decades.