Sadly, a number of readers have questioned whether it actually takes courage to have the courage to admit you’re scared of climate change.
Er, yes. Yes it does. The great medieval figure Edward “Ed” Stark explained this better than any science communicator could:
Bran thought about it.
‘Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.
Speaking of historical dramas, my thirteen-year-old thinks he’s getting the 300 box set for his birthday tomorrow. But I reckon he’ll be stoked when he opens his actual present: a donation in his name to the Scared Scientists!
(The ScS team has finally listened to the demands of ordinary climate mums and dads around the country and added a PayPal button on every single page of their site.)
Denialists are already chuckling at the small numbers of the Scared—and missing the point, as usual.
The Scientists may be just eight—for now—but as my teenager might say, “Are they not therefore so much the more fully sick than that pretty-boy Leonidas, who needed 299 mates to help him lose a fight? To a bunch of Bronze Age illiterates?”
With scientists increasingly convinced that climate change could be even more decisive for Western civilization than Thermopylae, the names of Flannery, Steffen, England, Perkins, Hughes, Ajani, Macreadie and Murray have already inscribed themselves in immortality.
Win or (god forbid) lose, we who survive will remember them.
Besides, standing up for the consensus has always been lonely work.
Lest we forget, it’s only thanks to the insane daring of one scientist—LLNL’s Ben Santer, who single-handedly rewrote the attribution chapter of IPCC 2AR, literally under cover of darkness—that the precious flame of consensus was not extinguished at the very beginning, back in 1995.
That’s what we mean when by the word hero: the one person in a thousand who’s willing to defend the consensus, and to hell with what his colleagues think.
If nothing else, Scared Scientists is a study in understatement—as befits the natural reticence of its 8 terrified subjects—so it needs to be read as thoughtfully as it was written.
We did that. Here are our picks for the most powerful messages of ScS:
1. Scientists are finally starting to get it
In 2008 Prime Minister Rudd declared climate change “the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time.”
The message obviously hasn’t penetrated the scientific world as fast as we might have hoped. But slowly and surely, our efforts to raise awareness are paying off. As the call-to-action page reveals,
Nearly every scientist interviewed for this project said voting for greener policies and supporting green initiatives is even more important than recycling.
Sure, it’s a pretty low bar. It would have been nice to read that “all eight scientists” passed such a basic litmus test; or even “every scientist but one”; yet the worst thing we could take away from this would be defeatism.
The real message is this: denial is still out there. Apparently it’s even insinuated itself into the Aussie Eight, with at least two of the supposedly Scared Scientists yet to be convinced that in the scheme of things, climate action ought to trump the feelgood ritual of triaging your trash on Tuesday night!
Let’s be honest: that’s a bit disturbing.
On the other hand, now we know there are 5 or 6 scientists in Australia who do accept the seriousness of the science.
In the meantime we’ve urged the team behind ScS to name the deniers among the Eight. After all, the public has a right to know the kind of people we’re listening to.
If and when they’re outed, you’ll read it on Climate Nuremberg first.
2. The credibility is on our side
Not only do the Apprehensive Eight ooze expertise, some of it is actually climate-related.
Compared to the skeptical “authorities,” the difference could hardly be starker. It’s a little embarrassing, frankly.
Deniers have been known to cite thousands of non-climate-credentialled scientists. (Who can forget the Oregon Petition? We certainly can’t.)
By contrast, only three of the Scared Scientists seem to be unqualified to comment.
Professor Flannery, of course, is a fossil macropod boffin; Will Steffen is a chemical engineer; and Shauna Murray, a fresh face in the debate, appears to be something of an expert on “the evolution and molecular ecology of marine microbial eukaryotes and their toxins,” if not on long-term trends in the statistical properties of weather.
That leaves an overwhelming 62.5% of the Scared Eight with prima facie standing to interpret the state of climate science—in other words, almost 65% of them.
It’s a formidable line-up in anyone’s books.
3. That Will Steffen profile
One decision has proven particularly controversial, dominating most discussion of the ScS project. I refer of course to the inclusion of Will Steffen, who was clearly unwell.
Steffen’s headshot reveals, in haunting chiaroscuro, a man who has been too scared of climate change to sleep for several days.
His comments start out unremarkably enough:
The climate is related to many parts of the Earth; the land, the ocean, the ice, the atmosphere.
Most climate scientists would acknowledge this as a reasonably good, if banal, summary of the science, at least for a layperson like Steffen.
The first red flag is when Steffen lapses into disjointed speech (also known as ‘word salad’):
If we push the climate too far, if we start losing ice too rapidly, start flipping things like the Amazon, then the internal dynamics of the climate will take over […]
The alarm bells ring in earnest when it becomes apparent that Steffen thinks the climate obeys instructions from humans:
We’ll reach a point where we’ll lose control over the [climate] system.
Mental-health registrars in hospitals everywhere are only too familiar with such ideation. The delusion of ability to control the weather is a textbook sign of the manic phase of schizophrenia. (The annals of medicine are full of such bizarre and surprisingly specific symptomatology, from the stereotyped migration pattern of appendicitic pain to the fear of swallowing water seen in people with terminal rabies.)
Critics have slammed the ScS project as “exploitative” for its warts-and-all disclosure of Steffen’s state of mind.
I disagree. I’ve always supported anything that opens up the national conversation on mental illness.
Climate change is, after all, a mental health threat first and foremost. If we presume Steffen gave informed consent for the publication of his words, should we not applaud him as the bravest of all the Scared Scientists?
4. It’s not as good as we thought
Last but not least, Scared conveys the growing urgency of the problem, and the explosive progress made by recent climate science in describing it.
As recently as 2009 the nation’s Chief Climate Commissioner announced optimistically,
We’re dealing with an incomplete understanding of the way the earth system works… When we come to the last few years, when we haven’t seen a continuation of that warming trend, we don’t understand all of the factors that create earth’s climate, so there are some things we don’t understand, that’s what the scientists were emailing about, you know, we don’t understand the way the whole system works, and we have to find out…. See, these people work with models, computer modelling. So when the computer modelling and the real world data disagree you’ve got a very interesting problem… Sure, for the last 10 years we’ve gone through a slight cooling trend.
A few short years—and a demotion to the position of simple Scared Scientist—later, Professor Flannery now has a rather different understanding:
Climate Science underestimated the pace of climate change, it was too conservative. We’re now having far more rapid change than originally projected.
So what changed in the interim? It’s hard to explain—and only a handful of experts really understand it—but we know it revolves around the discovery of the atmospheric-oceanic interface. This largely-unexplored zone is thought to be responsible for the continuous interchange of degrees Celsius (above water) with Hiroshimas (below the surface).
[American visitors: for Celsius and Hiroshimas, please read ‘Fahrenheit’ and ‘Nagasakis.’]
All sciences are continually improving, but only in climatology can we boast 180 degrees of progress in five years.
Remember when words like ‘catastrophe’ and ‘CAGW’ were just denialist straw-men?
The last thing we expected was that they’d become part of the everyday vocab of the scientists themselves. That’s why it’s so terrifying to read Peter MacReadie’s profile:
FEAR: GLOBAL CATASTROPHE
IPCC predicts that the impacts of climate change will be catastrophic. This affects everybody. Nobody is safe.
The times, they are a-changin’.
For far too long our grandparents have droned on about the horrors of the War, demanding that we call them the Greatest Generation. Yawn.
Don’t get me wrong. Standing up to Aryan fascists and Japanese prison guards is all well and good. But standing up to climate change, even if it just means telling the world how scared you are, takes courage to a whole new level.
So let’s not get into a whole debate about which generation is the “greatest.”
That debate is over.
We’re looking at it:
If this article or any other discussion of climate change has brought up feelings of hopelessness, impotence or anhedonia for you, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. (Academics outside Australia should contact their university’s counseling service.)