When the end of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion is your day job, it can be hard to sleep at night

Esquire (Philippines) - - CONTENTS - BY JOHN H. RICHARD­SON

Things are worse than we think, but cli­mate sci­en­tists can’t re­ally talk about it.

THE IN­CI­DENT WAS SMALL, BUT JA­SON BOX doesn’t want to talk about it. He’s been skit­tish about the me­dia since it hap­pened. This was last sum­mer, as he was read­ing the cheery blog posts trans­mit­ted by the chief sci­en­tist on the Swedish ice­breaker Oden, which was ex­plor­ing the Arc­tic for an international ex­pe­di­tion led by Stock­holm Univer­sity. “Our first ob­ser­va­tions of el­e­vated meth­ane lev­els, about 10 times higher than in back­ground sea­wa­ter, were doc­u­mented . . . we dis­cov­ered over 100 new meth­ane seep sites. . . . The weather Gods are still on our side as we steam through a now ice-free Laptev Sea. . . .”

As a lead­ing cli­ma­tol­o­gist who spent many years study­ing the Arc­tic at the Byrd Po­lar and Cli­mate Re­search Cen­ter at Ohio State, Box knew that this breezy sci­en­tific de­tach­ment de­scribed one of the night­mare long-shot cli­mate sce­nar­ios: a feed­back loop where warm­ing seas re­lease meth­ane that causes warm­ing that re­leases more meth­ane that causes more warm­ing, on and on un­til the planet is in­com­pat­i­ble with hu­man life. And he knew there were sim­i­lar meth­ane re­leases oc­cur­ring in the area. On im­pulse, he sent out a tweet.

“If even a small frac­tion of Arc­tic sea floor car­bon is re­leased to the at­mos­phere, we’re f’d.”

The tweet im­me­di­ately went vi­ral, in­spir­ing a se­ries of head­lines: cli­ma­tol­o­gist­saysarc­tic­car­bon­re­leasec­ould­mean“we’re­fucked.” cli­mate­sci­en­tist­drop­s­thef-bom­bafter­startlin­garc­ticdis­cov­ery. cli­ma­tol­o­gist:methane­plumes­fromt­hearc­ticmeanwe’re­screwed.

Box has been out­spo­ken for years. He’s done sci­ence projects with Green­peace, and he par­tic­i­pated in the 2011 mass protest at the White House or­ga­nized by In 2013, he made head­lines when a magazine re­ported his con­clu­sion that a 70-foot rise in sea lev­els over the next few cen­turies was prob­a­bly al­ready “baked into the sys­tem.” Now, with one word, Box had ven­tured into two par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous ar­eas. First, the dirty se­cret of cli­mate sci­ence and gov­ern­ment cli­mate poli­cies is that they’re all based on prob­a­bil­i­ties, which means that the ef­fects of stan­dard CO2 tar­gets like an 80 per­cent re­duc­tion by 2050 are based on the mid­dle of the prob­a­bil­ity curve. Box had ven­tured to the darker pos­si­bil­i­ties on the curve’s tail, where few sci­en­tists and zero politi­cians are will­ing to go.

Worse, he showed emo­tion, a sub­ject ringed with taboos in all sci­ence but espe­cially in cli­mate sci­ence. As a re­cent study from the Univer­sity of Bristol doc­u­mented, cli­mate sci­en­tists have been so dis­tracted and in­tim­i­dated by the re­lent­less cam­paign against them that they tend to avoid any state­ments that might get them la­beled “alarmists,” re­treat­ing into a world of charts and data. But Box had been able to re­sist all that. He even chased the me­dia splash in in­ter­views with the Dan­ish press, where they trans­lated “we’re fucked” into its more deco­rous Dan­ish equiv­a­lent, “on our ass,” plas­ter­ing those dispir­it­ing words in large-type head­lines all across the coun­try.

The prob­lem was that Box was now work­ing for the Dan­ish gov­ern­ment, and even though Den­mark may be the most pro­gres­sive na­tion in the world on cli­mate is­sues, its lead­ers still did not take kindly to one of its sci­en­tists dis­tress­ing the pop­u­lace with vi­sions of global de­struc­tion. Con­vinced his job was in jeop­ardy only a year after he up­rooted his young fam­ily and moved to a dis­tant coun­try, Box was sum­moned be­fore the en­tire board of di­rec­tors at his re­search in­sti­tute. So now, when he gets an e-mail ask­ing for a phone call to dis­cuss his “re­cent gloomy state­ments,” he doesn’t an­swer it.

Five days later: “Dr. Box—try­ing you again in case the mes­sage below went into your junk file. Please get in touch.”

This time he re­sponds briefly. “I think most sci­en­tists must be bury­ing overt recog­ni­tion of the aw­ful truths of cli­mate change in a pro­tec­tive layer of de­nial (not the same kind of de­nial com­ing from con­ser­va­tives, of course). I’m still amazed how few cli­ma­tol­o­gists have taken an ad­vo­cacy mes­sage to the streets, demon­strat­ing for some pol­icy ac­tion.” But he ig­nores the re­quest for a phone call.

A week later, an­other try: “Dr. Box—I watched your speech at The Econ­o­mist’s Arc­tic Sum­mit. Wow. I would like to come see you.”

But gloom is the one sub­ject he doesn’t want to dis­cuss. “Crawl­ing un­der a rock isn’t an op­tion,” he re­sponds, “so be­com­ing over­come with PTSD-like symp­toms is use­less.” He quotes a Norse proverb: “The un­wise man is awake all night, wor­ries over and again. When morn­ing rises, he is restless still.”

Most peo­ple don’t have a proverb like that read­ily at hand. So, a fi­nal try: “I do think I should come to see you, meet your fam­ily, and make this story per­sonal and vivid.”

I wanted to meet Box to find out how this out­spo­ken Amer­i­can is hold­ing up. He has left his coun­try and moved his fam­ily to wit­ness and study the melt­ing of Green­land up close. How does be­ing the one to look at the grim facts of cli­mate change most in­ti­mately, day in and day out, af­fect a per­son? Is Box rep­re­sen­ta­tive of all of the sci­en­tists most di­rectly in­volved in this defin­ing is­sue of the new cen­tury? How are they be­ing af­fected by the bur­den of their cho­sen work in the face of changes to the earth that could ren­der it a dif­fer­ent planet?

Fi­nally, Box gives in. Come to Copen­hagen, he says. And he even prom­ises a fam­ily din­ner.

FOR MORE THAN 30 YEARS, cli­mate sci­en­tists have been liv­ing a sur­real ex­is­tence. A vast and ever-grow­ing body of re­search shows that warm­ing is track­ing the rise of green­house gases ex­actly as their models pre­dicted. The phys­i­cal ev­i­dence be­comes more dra­matic ev­ery year: forests re­treat­ing, an­i­mals mov­ing north, glaciers melt­ing, wild­fire sea­sons get­ting longer, higher rates of droughts, floods, and storms—five times as many in the 2000s as in the 1970s. In the blunt words of the 2014 Na­tional Cli­mate As­sess­ment, con­ducted by 300 of Amer­ica’s most dis­tin­guished ex­perts at the re­quest of the U. S. gov­ern­ment, hu­manin­duced cli­mate change is real—U. S. tem­per­a­tures have gone up be­tween 1.3 and 1.9 de­grees, mostly since 1970—and the change is al­ready af­fect­ing “agri­cul­ture, water, hu­man health, en­ergy,

trans­porta­tion, forests, and ecosys­tems.” But that’s not the worst of it. Arc­tic air tem­per­a­tures are in­creas­ing at twice the rate of the rest of the world—a study by the U. S. Navy says that the Arc­tic could lose its sum­mer sea ice by next year, 84 years ahead of the models—and ev­i­dence lit­tle more than a year old sug­gests the West Antarc­tic Ice Sheet is doomed, which will add be­tween 20 and 25 feet to ocean lev­els. The one hun­dred mil­lion peo­ple in Bangladesh will need an­other place to live and coastal cities glob­ally will be forced to re­lo­cate, a task com­pli­cated by eco­nomic cri­sis and famine—with con­ti­nen­tal in­te­ri­ors dry­ing out, the chief sci­en­tist at the U. S. State Department in 2009 pre­dicted a bil­lion peo­ple will suf­fer famine within 20 or 30 years. And yet, de­spite some en­cour­ag­ing de­vel­op­ments in re­new­able en­ergy and some break­throughs in international lead­er­ship, car­bon emis­sions con­tinue to rise at a steady rate, and for their pains the sci­en­tists them­selves—the cru­elest blow of all—have been the tar­gets of an un­re­lent­ing and well-or­ga­nized at­tack that in­cludes death threats, sum­monses from a hos­tile Congress, at­tempts to get them fired, le­gal ha­rass­ment, and in­tru­sive dis­cov­ery de­mands so se­vere they had to start their own le­gal- de­fense fund, all am­pli­fied by a re­lent­less pro­pa­ganda cam­paign nakedly fi­nanced by the fos­sil-fuel com­pa­nies. Shortly be­fore a piv­otal cli­mate sum­mit in Copen­hagen in 2009, thou­sands of their e-mail streams were hacked in a so­phis­ti­cated es­pi­onage op­er­a­tion that has never been solved— although the of­fi­cial po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed noth­ing, an anal­y­sis by foren­sics ex­perts traced its path through servers in Turkey and two of the world’s largest oil pro­duc­ers, Saudi Ara­bia and Rus­sia.

Among cli­mate ac­tivists, gloom is build­ing. Jim Driscoll of the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Peer Sup­port just fin­ished a study of a group of long­time ac­tivists whose most fre­quently re­ported feel­ing was sad­ness, fol­lowed by fear and anger. Dr. Lise Van Sus­teren, a prac­tic­ing psy­chi­a­trist and grad­u­ate of Al Gore’s In­con­ve­nient Truth slideshow train­ing, calls this “pre­trau­matic” stress. “So many of us are ex­hibit­ing all the signs and symp­toms of post­trau­matic dis­or­der—the anger, the panic, the ob­ses­sive in­tru­sive thoughts.” Lead­ing ac­tivist Gil­lian Cald­well went pub­lic with her “cli­mate trauma,” as she called it, quit­ting the group she helped build and post­ing an ar­ti­cle called “16 Tips for Avoid­ing Cli­mate Burnout,” in which she sug­gests com­part­men­tal­iza­tion: “Re­in­force bound­aries be­tween pro­fes­sional work and per­sonal life. It is very hard to switch from the riv­et­ing force of apoc­a­lyp­tic pre­dic­tions at work to home, where the prob­lems are petty by com­par­i­son.”

Most of the dozens of sci­en­tists and ac­tivists I spoke to date the rise of the melan­choly mood to the fail­ure of the 2009 cli­mate con­fer­ence and the grad­ual shift from hope of pre­ven­tion to plans for adap­ta­tion: Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth is a man­ual for sur­vival on an earth so dif­fer­ent he doesn’t think we should even spell it the same, and James Love­lock de­liv­ers the same mes­sage in A

Rough Ride to the Fu­ture. In Aus­tralia, Clive Hamil­ton writes ar­ti­cles and books with ti­tles like Re­quiem for a Species. In a re­cent is­sue of The New Yorker, the melan­choly Jonathan Franzen ar­gued that, since earth now “re­sem­bles a pa­tient whose ter­mi­nal can­cer we can choose to treat ei­ther with dis­fig­ur­ing ag­gres­sion or with pal­li­a­tion and sym­pa­thy,” we should stop try­ing to avoid the in­evitable and spend our money on new na­ture pre­serves, where birds can go ex­tinct a lit­tle more slowly.

At the dark­est end of the spec­trum are groups like Deep Green Re­sis­tance, which openly ad­vo­cates sab­o­tage to “in­dus­trial in­fra­struc­ture,” and the thou­sands who visit the Web site and at­tend the speeches of Guy McPherson, a bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona who con­cluded that re­new­ables would do no good, left his job, and moved to an off-grid homestead to pre­pare for abrupt cli­mate change. “Civ­i­liza­tion is a heat en­gine,” he says. “There’s no es­cap­ing the trap we’ve landed our­selves into.”

The most in­flu­en­tial is Paul Kingsnorth, a long­time cli­mate ac­tivist and nov­el­ist who aban­doned hope for po­lit­i­cal change in 2009. Re­treat­ing to the woods of western Ire­land, he helped launch a group called Dark Moun­tain with a stir­ring, gloomy man­i­festo call­ing for “a net­work of writ­ers, artists, and thinkers who have stopped be­liev­ing the sto­ries our civ­i­liza­tion tells it­self.” Among those sto­ries: progress, growth, and the su­pe­ri­or­ity of man. The idea quickly spread, and there are now 50 Dark Moun­tain chap­ters around the world. Fans have writ­ten plays and songs and a Ph.D. the­sis about them. On the phone from Ire­land, he ex­plains the ap­peal.

“You have to be care­ful about hope. If that hope is based on an un­re­al­is­tic foun­da­tion, it just crum­bles and then you end up with peo­ple who are de­spair­ing. I saw that in Copen­hagen—there was a lot of de­spair and giv­ing up after that.”

Per­son­ally, though he con­sid­ers them fee­ble ges­tures, he’s plant­ing a lot of trees, grow­ing his own veg­eta­bles, avoid­ing plas­tic. He stopped fly­ing. “It seems like an eth­i­cal obli­ga­tion. All you can do is what you think is right.” The odd thing is that he’s much more for­giv­ing than ac­tivists still in the strug­gle, even with oil-pur­chased politi­cians. “We all love the fruits of what we’re given—the cars and com­put­ers and iPhones. What politi­cian is go­ing to try to sell peo­ple a fu­ture where they can’t update their iPhones ever?” He laughs. Does he think it would be wrong to take a transat­lantic air­plane trip to in­ter­view a cli­mate sci­en­tist?

He laughs again. “You have to an­swer that your­self.”

A LL THIS LEAVES CLI­MATE SCI­EN­TISTS in an awk­ward po­si­tion. At NASA’s God­dard In­sti­tute for Space Stud­ies, which early in the year was threat­ened with 30-per­cent bud­get cuts by Repub­li­cans who re­sent its re­ports on cli­mate change, Gavin Sch­midt oc­cu­pies the seventh-floor cor­ner of­fice once oc­cu­pied by the leg­endary James Hansen, the sci­en­tist who first laid out the facts for Congress in 1988 and grew so im­pas­sioned he got him­self ar­rested protest­ing coal mines. Although Sch­midt was one of the vic­tims of the 2009 com­puter hacks, which he ad­mits tipped him into an episode of se­ri­ous de­pres­sion, he now fo­cuses re­lent­lessly on the bright side. “It’s not that noth­ing has been done. There’s a lot of things. In terms of per capita emis­sions, most of the de­vel­oped world is sta­ble. So we are do­ing some­thing.”

Box’s tweet sets his teeth on edge. “I don’t agree. I don’t think we’re fucked. There is time to build sus­tain­able so­lu­tions to a lot of these things. You don’t have to close down all the coal-pow­ered sta­tions to­mor­row. You can tran­si­tion. It sounds cute to say, ‘Oh, we’re fucked and there’s noth­ing we can do,’ but it’s a bit of a ni­hilis­tic at­ti­tude. We al­ways have the choice. We can con­tinue to make worse de­ci­sions, or we can try to make even bet­ter de­ci­sions. ‘Oh, we’re fucked! Just give up now, just kill me now,’ that’s just stupid.”

Sch­midt, who is ex­pect­ing his first child and tries to live a low­car­bon ex­is­tence, in­sists that the hacks and in­ves­ti­ga­tions and bud­get threats have not in­tim­i­dated him. He also shrugs off the abrupt­cli­mate-change sce­nar­ios. “The meth­ane thing is ac­tu­ally some­thing I work on a lot, and most of the head­lines are crap. There’s no ac­tual ev­i­dence that any­thing dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent is go­ing on in the Arc­tic, other than the fact that it’s melt­ing pretty much ev­ery­where.”

But cli­mate change hap­pens grad­u­ally and we’ve al­ready gone up al­most one de­gree centi­grade and seen eight inches of ocean rise. Bar­ring un­think­ably rad­i­cal change, we’ll hit 2 de­grees in 30 or 40 years and that’s been de­scribed as a catas­tro­phe—melt­ing ice, ris­ing

wa­ters, drought, famine, and mas­sive eco­nomic tur­moil. And many sci­en­tists now think we’re on track to 4 or 5 de­grees—even Shell oil said that it an­tic­i­pates a world 4 de­grees hot­ter be­cause it doesn’t see “gov­ern­ments tak­ing the steps now that are con­sis­tent with the 2 de­grees C sce­nario.” That would mean a world racked by eco­nomic and so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal col­lapse.

“Oh yeah,” Sch­midt says, al­most ca­su­ally. “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.”

But things can change much quicker than peo­ple think, he says. Look at at­ti­tudes on gay mar­riage. And the glaciers? “The glaciers are go­ing to melt, they’re all go­ing to melt,” he says. “But my re­ac­tion to Ja­son Box’s com­ments is—what is the point of say­ing that? It doesn’t help any­body.”

As it hap­pens, Sch­midt was the first win­ner of the Cli­mate Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Prize from the Amer­i­can Geo­phys­i­cal Union, and var­i­ous re­cent stud­ies in the grow­ing field of cli­mate com­mu­ni­ca­tions find that frank talk about the grim re­al­i­ties turns peo­ple off—it’s sim­ply too much to take in. But strat­egy is one thing and truth is an­other. Aren’t those glaciers water sources for hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple?

“Par­tic­u­larly in the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent, that’s a real is­sue,” he says. “There’s go­ing to be dis­lo­ca­tion there, no ques­tion.”

And the ris­ing oceans? Bangladesh is al­most un­der­wa­ter now. Do a hun­dred mil­lion peo­ple have to move? “Well, yeah. Un­der business as usual. But I don’t think we’re fucked.” Re­source wars, star­va­tion, mass mi­gra­tions . . . “Bad things are go­ing to hap­pen. What can you do as a per­son? You write sto­ries. I do sci­ence. You don’t run around say­ing, ‘We’re fucked! We’re fucked! We’re fucked!’ It doesn’t—it doesn’t in­cen­tivize any­body to do any­thing.”

SCI­EN­TISTS ARE PROB­LEM SOLVERS by na­ture, trained to cher­ish de­tach­ment as a moral ideal. Jef­frey Kiehl was a se­nior sci­en­tist with the Na­tional Cen­ter for At­mo­spheric Re­search when he be­came so con­cerned about the way the brain re­sists cli­mate sci­ence, he took a break and got a psy­chol­ogy de­gree. Ten years of re­search later, he’s con­cluded that con­sump­tion and growth have be­come so cen­tral to our sense of per­sonal iden­tity and the fear of eco­nomic loss cre­ates such numb­ing anx­i­ety, we lit­er­ally can­not imag­ine mak­ing the nec­es­sary changes. Worse, ac­cept­ing the facts threat­ens us with a loss of faith in the fun­da­men­tal or­der of the uni­verse. Cli­mate sci­en­tists are dif­fer­ent only be­cause they have a pro­fes­sional ex­cuse for de­tach­ment, and usu­ally it’s not un­til they get older that they ad­mit how much it’s af­fect­ing them—which is also when they tend to get more out­spo­ken, Kiehl says. “You reach a point where you feel—and that’s the word, not think, feel—‘I have to do some­thing.’ ”

This ac­counts for the star­tled re­ac­tion when Camille Parme­san of the Univer­sity of Texas—who was a mem­ber of the group that shared a No­bel prize with Al Gore for their cli­mate work—an­nounced that she’d be­come “pro­fes­sion­ally de­pressed” and was leav­ing the United States for Eng­land. A plain­spo­ken Texan who grew up in Hous­ton as the daugh­ter of an oil ge­ol­o­gist, Parme­san now says it was more about the pol­i­tics than the sci­ence. “To be hon­est, I pan­icked 15 years ago—that was when the first stud­ies came out show­ing that Arc­tic tun­dras were shift­ing from be­ing a net sink to be­ing a net source of CO2. That along with the fact this but­ter­fly I was study­ing shifted its en­tire range across half a con­ti­nent—I said this is big, this is big. Ev­ery­thing since then has just con­firmed it.”

But she’s not op­ti­mistic. “Do I think it likely that the na­tions of the world will take suf­fi­cient ac­tion to sta­bi­lize cli­mate in the next 50 years? No, I don’t think it likely.”

She was liv­ing in Texas after the cli­mate sum­mit failed in 2009, when me­dia cov­er­age of cli­mate is­sues plunged by two thirds—the sub­ject wasn’t men­tioned once in the 2012 pres­i­den­tial de­bates—and Gov­er­nor Rick Perry cut the sec­tions re­lat­ing to sea-level rise in a re­port on Galve­ston Bay, kick­ing off a trend of state of­fi­cials who ban all use of the term “cli­mate change.” “There are ex­cel­lent cli­mate sci­en­tists in Texas,” Parme­san says firmly. “Ev­ery univer­sity in the state has peo­ple work­ing on im­pacts. To have the gov­er­nor’s of­fice ig­nore it is just very up­set­ting.”

The pol­i­tics took its toll. Her but­ter­fly study got her a spot on the UN cli­mate panel, where she got “a quick and hard les­son on the pol­i­tics” when pol­icy mak­ers killed the words “high con­fi­dence” in the cru­cial pas­sage that said sci­en­tists had high con­fi­dence species were re­spond­ing to cli­mate change. Then the per­sonal at­tacks started on right-wing Web sites and blogs. “They just flat-out lie. It’s one rea­son I live in the UK now. It’s not just been cli­mate change, there’s a grow­ing, ever-stronger an­ti­science sen­ti­ment in the U. S. A. Peo­ple get re­ally an­gry and re­ally nasty. It was a huge re­lief sim­ply not to have to deal with it.” She now ad­vises her grad­u­ate stu­dents to look for jobs out­side the U. S.

No one has ex­pe­ri­enced that hos­til­ity more vividly than Michael Mann, who was a young Ph.D. re­searcher when he helped come up with the his­tor­i­cal data that came to be known as the hockey stick—the most in­cen­di­ary dis­play graph in hu­man his­tory, with its tem­per­a­ture and emis­sions lines go­ing straight up at the end like the blade of a hockey stick. He was in­ves­ti­gated, was de­nounced in Congress, got death threats, was ac­cused of fraud, re­ceived white pow­der in the mail, and got thou­sands of e-mails with sug­ges­tions like, You should be “shot, quar­tered, and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn fam­i­lies.” Con­ser­va­tive le­gal foun­da­tions pres­sured his univer­sity, a Bri­tish jour­nal­ist sug­gested the elec­tric chair. In 2003, Se­na­tor James In­hofe’s com­mit­tee called him to tes­tify, flank­ing him with two pro­fes­sional cli­mate-change de­niers, and in 2011 the com­mit­tee threat­ened him with fed­eral pros­e­cu­tion, along with 16 other sci­en­tists.

Now, sit­ting be­hind his desk in his of­fice at Penn State, he goes back to his swirl of emo­tions. “You find your­self in the cen­ter of this po­lit­i­cal the­ater, in this chess match that’s be­ing played out by very pow­er­ful fig­ures—you feel anger, be­fud­dle­ment, dis­il­lu­sion­ment, dis­gust.”

The in­tim­i­dat­ing ef­fect is un­de­ni­able, he says. Some of his col­leagues were so de­mor­al­ized by the ac­cu­sa­tions and in­ves­ti­ga­tions that they with­drew from pub­lic life. One came close to sui­cide. Mann de­cided to fight back, de­vot­ing more of his time to press in­ter­views and pub­lic speak­ing, and dis­cov­ered that con­tact with other con­cerned peo­ple al­ways cheered him up. But the sense of po­ten­tial dan­ger never leaves. “You’re care­ful with what you say and do be­cause you know that there’s the equiv­a­lent of some­body with a movie cam­era fol­low­ing you around,” he says.

Mean­while, his sense of per­sonal alarm has only grown. “I know you’ve spo­ken with Ja­son Box—a num­ber of us have had these ex­pe­ri­ences where it’s be­come clear to us that in many re­spects, cli­mate change is un­fold­ing faster than we ex­pected it to. Maybe it is true what the ice-sheet model­ers have been telling us, that it will take a thou­sand years or more to melt the Green­land Ice Sheet. But maybe they’re wrong; maybe it could play out in a cen­tury or two. And then it’s a whole dif­fer­ent ball­game—it’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween hu­man civ­i­liza­tion and liv­ing things be­ing able to adapt and not be­ing able to adapt.”

As Mann sees it, sci­en­tists like Sch­midt who choose to fo­cus on the mid­dle of the curve aren’t re­ally be­ing sci­en­tific. Worse are pseu­dosym­pa­thiz­ers like Bjorn Lom­borg who al­ways fo­cus on the gen­tlest pos­si­bil­i­ties. Be­cause we’re sup­posed to hope for the best and pre­pare for the worst, and a real sci­en­tific re­sponse would also give se­ri­ous weight to the dark side of the curve.

And yet, like Sch­midt, Mann tries very hard to look on the bright side. We can solve this prob­lem in a way that doesn’t dis­rupt our life­style, he says. Pub­lic aware­ness seems to be in­creas­ing, and there are a lot of good things hap­pen­ing at the ex­ec­u­tive level: tighter fu­el­ef­fi­ciency stan­dards, the car­bon-pric­ing ini­tia­tives by the New Eng­land and West Coast states, the re­cent agree­ment be­tween the U. S. and China on emis­sions. Last year we saw global eco­nomic growth with­out an in­crease in car­bon emis­sions, which sug­gests it’s pos­si­ble to “de­cou­ple” oil and eco­nomic growth. And so­cial change can hap­pen very fast—look at gay mar­riage.

But he knows that gay mar­riage had no huge eco­nomic down­side, and the most pow­er­ful com­pa­nies in the world are fight­ing to stop any change in the fos­sil-fuel econ­omy. So yes, he strug­gles with doubt. And he ad­mits that some of his col­leagues are very de­pressed, con­vinced there’s no way the international com­mu­nity will rise to the chal­lenge. He gets into that con­ver­sa­tion in bars after cli­mate con­fer­ences, al­ways push­ing the side of hope.

Deal­ing with all of this has been a long emo­tional jour­ney. As a young sci­en­tist, Mann was very tra­di­tional: “I felt that sci­en­tists should take an en­tirely dis­pas­sion­ate view when dis­cussing mat­ters of sci­ence,” he wrote in a book called The Hockey Stick and the Cli­mate Wars. “We should do our best to di­vorce our­selves from all of our typ­i­cally hu­man in­cli­na­tions—emo­tion, em­pa­thy, con­cern.” But even when he de­cided that de­tach­ment was a mis­take in this case and be­gan be­com­ing pub­licly ac­tive, he was usu­ally able to put the im­pli­ca­tion of all the hockey-stick trend lines out of his mind. “Part of be­ing a sci­en­tist is you don’t want to be­lieve there is a prob­lem you can’t solve.” Might that be just an­other form of de­nial?

The ques­tion seems to af­fect him. He takes a deep breath and an­swers in the care­fully mea­sured words of a sci­en­tist. “It’s hard to say,” he says. “It’s a de­nial of fu­til­ity if there is fu­til­ity. But I don’t know that there is fu­til­ity, so it would only be de­nial per se if there were unas­sail­able ev­i­dence.”

There are moments, he ad­mits, flashes that come and go as fast as a blink­ing light, when he sees news re­ports about some new de­vel­op­ment in the field and it hits him—Wait a sec­ond, they’re say­ing that we’ve melted a lot. Then he does a pe­cu­liar thing: He dis­as­so­ci­ates a lit­tle bit and asks him­self, How would I feel about that head­line if I were a mem­ber of the pub­lic? I’d be scared out of my mind.

Right after Hur­ri­cane Sandy, he was in the class­room show­ing The Day After To­mor­row with the plan of cri­tiquing its ridicu­lous story about the At­lantic con­veyor belt slow­ing down so fast that it freezes Eng­land—ex­cept a re­cent study he worked on shows that the At­lantic con­veyor belt ac­tu­ally is slow­ing down, an­other thing that’s hap­pen­ing decades ahead of sched­ule. “And some of the scenes in the wake of Hur­ri­cane Sandy— the flood­ing of the New York City sub­way sys­tem, cars sub­merged—they re­ally didn’t look that dif­fer­ent. The car­toon sud­denly looked less like a car­toon. And it’s like, Now why is it that we can com­pletely dis­miss this movie?”

He was talk­ing to stu­dents, so it got to him. They’re young, it’s their fu­ture more than his. He choked up and had to strug­gle to get ahold of him­self. “You don’t want to choke up in front of your class,” he says.

About once a year, he says, he has night­mares of earth be­com­ing a very alien planet. The worst time was when he was read­ing his daugh­ter Dr. Seuss’s

The Lo­rax, the story of a society de­stroyed by greed. He saw it as an op­ti­mistic story be­cause it ends with the chal­lenge of build­ing a new society, but she burst into tears and re­fused to read the book again. “It was al­most trau­matic for her.” His voice cracks. “I’m hav­ing one of those moments now.” Why? “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.”

T HE SPRING DAY IS GLO­RI­OUS, sunny and cool, and the av­enues of Copen­hagen are alive with tourists. Try­ing to make the best of things, Ja­son Box says we should blow off the get­ting-to-knowyou lunch and go for a bike ride. Thirty min­utes later he locks up the bikes at the en­trance to Free­town, a lo­cal an­ar­chist com­mu­nity that has im­prob­a­bly be­come one of Copen­hagen’s most pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tions. Grab­bing a cou­ple beers at a

“I think most sci­en­tists must be bury­ing overt recog­ni­tion of the aw­ful truths of cli­mate change in a pro­tec­tive layer of de­nial (not the same kind of de­nial com­ing from con­ser­va­tives, of course).”

“Part of be­ing a sci­en­tist is you don’t want to be­lieve there is a prob­lem you can’t


restau­rant, he leads the way to a wind­ing lake and a small dock. The wind is blow­ing, swans flap their wings just off the beach, and Box sits with the sun on his face and his feet dan­gling over the sand.

“There’s a lot that’s scary,” he says, run­ning down the list—the melt­ing sea ice, the slow­ing of the con­veyor belt. Only in the last few years were they able to con­clude that Green­land is warmer than it was in the ,20s, and the un­pub­lished data looks very hockey-stick-ish. He fig­ures there’s a 50-per­cent chance we’re al­ready com­mit­ted to go­ing beyond 2 de­grees centi­grade and agrees with the grow­ing con­sen­sus that the business-as-usual tra­jec­tory is 4 or 5 de­grees. “It’s, um . . . bad. Re­ally nasty.”

The big ques­tion is, What amount of warm­ing puts Green­land into ir­re­versible loss? That’s what will de­stroy all the coastal cities on earth. The an­swer is be­tween 2 and 3 de­grees. “Then it just thins and thins enough and you can’t re­grow it with­out an ice age. And a small frac­tion of that is al­ready a huge prob­lem—Florida’s al­ready in­stalling all these ex­pen­sive pumps.” (Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by a group spear­headed by Hank Paul­son and Robert Ru­bin, sec­re­taries of the Trea­sury un­der Bush Jr. and Bill Clin­ton, re­spec­tively, $23 bil­lion worth of prop­erty in Florida may be de­stroyed by flood­ing within 35 years.)

Box is only 42, but his pointed Dan­ish beard makes him look like a count in an old novel, some­one who’d wear a frock coat and say some­thing droll about the woman ques­tion. He seems de­tached from the sunny day, like a tourist try­ing to re­lax in a strange city. He also seems oddly de­tached from the things he’s say­ing, lay­ing out one hor­ri­ble pre­dic­tion after an­other with­out emo­tion, as if he were an anthropologist re­gard­ing the life cy­cle of a dis­tant civ­i­liza­tion. But he can’t keep his anger in check for long and keeps ob­ses­sively re­turn­ing to two top­ics:

“We need the de­niers to get out of the way. They are risk­ing ev­ery­one’s fu­ture. . . . The Koch Broth­ers are crim­i­nals. . . . They should be charged with crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity be­cause they’re putting the prof­its of their business ahead of the liveli­hoods of mil­lions of peo­ple, and even life on earth.”

Like Parme­san, Box was hugely re­lieved to be out of the toxic at­mos­phere of the U. S. “I re­mem­ber think­ing, What a re­lief, I don’t have to bother with this bull­shit any­more.” In Den­mark, his re­search is sup­ported through the ef­forts of con­ser­va­tive politi­cians. “But Dan­ish con­ser­va­tives are not cli­mate- change de­niers,” he says.

The other topic he is ob­sessed with is the hu­man suf­fer­ing to come. Long be­fore the ris­ing wa­ters from Green­land’s glaciers dis­place the des­per­ate mil­lions, he says more than once, we will face drought­trig­gered agri­cul­tural fail­ures and water-se­cu­rity is­sues—in fact, it’s al­ready hap­pen­ing. Think back to the 2010 Rus­sian heat wave. Moscow halted grain ex­ports. At the peak of the Aus­tralian drought, food prices spiked. The Arab Spring started with food protests, the self-im­mo­la­tion of the veg­etable ven­dor in Tu­nisia. The Syr­ian con­flict was pre­ceded by four years of drought. Same with Dar­fur. The mi­grants are al­ready start­ing to stream north across the sea—just yes­ter­day, eight hun­dred of them died when their boat cap­sized— and the Euro­peans are ar­gu­ing about what to do with them. “As the Pen­tagon says, cli­mate change is a con­flict mul­ti­plier.”

His home state of Colorado isn’t do­ing so great, ei­ther. “The forests are dy­ing, and they will not re­turn. The trees won’t re­turn to a warm­ing cli­mate. We’re go­ing to see megafires even more, that’ll be the new one—megafires un­til those forests are cleared.”

How­ever dis­pas­sion­ately de­liv­ered, all of this amounts to a lament, the sci­en­tist’s ver­sion of the moth­ers who stand on hill­sides and keen over the death of their sons. In fact, Box adds, he too is a cli­mate refugee. His daugh­ter is three and a half, and Den­mark is a great place to be in an un­cer­tain world—there’s plenty of water, a high-tech agri­cul­ture sys­tem, in­creas­ing adop­tion of wind power, and plenty of ge­o­graphic dis­tance from the com­ing up­heavals. “Espe­cially when you con­sider the be­gin­ning of the flood of des­per­ate peo­ple from con­flict and drought,” he says, re­turn­ing to his ob­ses­sion with how pro­foundly changed our civ­i­liza­tion will be.

De­spite all this, he in­sists that he ap­proaches cli­mate mostly as an in­tel­lec­tual prob­lem. For the first decade of his ca­reer, even though he’s part of the gen­er­a­tion of cli­mate sci­en­tists who went to col­lege after Al Gore’s Earth in the Bal­ance, he stuck to teach­ing and re­search. He only be­gan tak­ing pro­fes­sional risks by work­ing with Green­peace and by join­ing the protest against Key­stone when he came to the in­tel­lec­tual con­clu­sion that cli­mate change is a moral is­sue. “It’s un­eth­i­cal to bank­rupt the en­vi­ron­ment of this planet,” he says. “That’s a tragedy, right?” Even now, he in­sists, the hor­ror of what is hap­pen­ing rarely touches him on an emo­tional level . . . although it has been hit­ting him more of­ten re­cently. “But I—I—I’m not let­ting it get to me. If I spend my en­ergy on de­spair, I won’t be think­ing about op­por­tu­ni­ties to minimize the prob­lem.”

His in­sis­tence on this point is very un­con­vinc­ing, espe­cially given the solem­nity that shrouds him like a dark coat. But the most in­ter­est­ing part is the in­sis­tence it­self—the des­per­ate need not to be dis­turbed by some­thing so disturbing. Sud­denly, a wel­come dis­trac­tion. A man ap­pears on the beach in noth­ing but jockey shorts, his skin bluish. He says he’s Greek and he’s been sleep­ing on this beach for seven months and will swim across the lake for a small tip. A pass­ing tourist asks if he can swim all the way. “Of course.” “Let me see.” “How much money?” “I give you when you get back.” “Give me 100.” “Yeah, yeah. When you get back.” The Greek man splashes into the water and Box seems amused, laugh­ing for the first time. It’s the re­lief of nor­mal goofy hu­man life, so dis­tant from the dark themes that make up his life’s work.

Usu­ally it’s a sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ment that smacks him, he says. The first was in 2002, when they dis­cov­ered that melt­wa­ter was get­ting into the bed of the Green­land Ice Sheet and lu­bri­cat­ing its flow. Oh, you say, it can be a wet bed, and then the im­pli­ca­tions sunk in: The whole damn thing is desta­bi­liz­ing. Then in 2006, all of the glaciers in the south­ern half of Green­land be­gan to re­treat at two and three times their pre­vi­ous speed. Good Lord, it’s hap­pen­ing so fast. Two years later, they re­al­ized the re­treat was fu­eled by warm water erod­ing the marine base ice—which is also what’s hap­pen­ing to the West Antarc­tic Ice Sheet. Just think­ing about it makes him gloomy. “That’s un­stop­pable,” he says. “Abrupt sea-level rise is upon us.”

The Greek man re­turns with sur­pris­ing speed, emerg­ing from the sea like a god in a myth, laugh­ing and boast­ing. The Greeks are mas­ters of the wa­ters! Pay me! “I’m gonna give this guy 100 Kro­ner,” Box says. He makes sure the tourists pay, too, and comes back smil­ing. He knows a Greek guy who’s just like that, he says, very proud and jolly. He en­vies him some­times.

He leads the way to a qui­eter spot on the lake­side, pass­ing through

lit­tle hip­pie vil­lages wo­ven to­gether by nar­row dirt lanes—by con­sen­sus vote, there are no cars in Free­town, which makes it feel pleas­antly me­dieval, in­ti­mate, and hu­man-scaled. He lifts a beer to his lips and gazes over the lake and the happy peo­ple laz­ing in the after­noon sun. “The ques­tion of de­spair is not very nice to think about,” he says. “I’ve just dis­en­gaged that to a large de­gree. It’s kind of like a half- de­nial.”

He men­tions the Norse proverb again, but a bul­wark against de­spair so of­ten cited be­comes its own form of de­spair. You don’t dredge up proverbs like that un­less you’re stay­ing awake at night.

He nods, sigh­ing. This work of­ten dis­turbs his sleep, driv­ing him from his bed to do some­thing, any­thing. “Yeah, the shit that’s go­ing down has been test­ing my abil­ity to block it.”

He goes quiet for a mo­ment. “It cer­tainly does creep in, as a par­ent,” he says qui­etly, his eyes to the ground.

But let’s get real, he says, fos­sil fu­els are the dom­i­nant in­dus­try on earth, and you can’t ex­pect mean­ing­ful po­lit­i­cal change with them in con­trol. “There’s a grow­ing con­sen­sus that there must be a shock to the sys­tem.”

So the darker hopes arise—maybe a par­tic­u­larly fu­ri­ous El Niño or a “car­bon bub­ble” where the fi­nan­cial mar­kets re­al­ize that re­new­ables have be­come more scal­able and eco­nom­i­cal, lead­ing to a run on fos­sil­fuel as­sets and a “gen­er­a­tional crash” of the global econ­omy that, through great suf­fer­ing, buys us more time and forces change.

T H E B OX FA M I LY DI N N E R isn’t go­ing to hap­pen after all, he says. When it comes to cli­mate change at the very late date of 2015, there are just too many un­com­fort­able things to say, and his wife, Klara, re­sents any no­tion that she is a “cli­mate mi­grant.” This is the first hint that his brash­ness has caused ten­sion at home. “Well, she . . .” He takes a mo­ment, con­sid­er­ing. “I’ll say some­thing like, ‘Man, the next 20 years are go­ing to be a hell of a ride,’ or ‘These poor North African refugees flood­ing to Europe,’ and how I an­tic­i­pate that flux of peo­ple to dou­ble and triple, and will the open borders of Europe change? And she’ll ac­knowl­edge it . . . but she’s not bring­ing it up like I am.”

Later, she sends a note re­spond­ing to a few ques­tions. She didn’t want to com­pare her­self to the truly des­per­ate refugees who are drown­ing, she says, and the move to Den­mark re­ally was for the qual­ity of life. “Lastly, the most dif­fi­cult ques­tion to an­swer is about Ja­son’s men­tal health. I’d say cli­mate change, and more broadly the whole host of en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial prob­lems the world faces, does af­fect his psy­che. He feels deeply about these is­sues, but he is a sci­en­tist and a very prag­matic, goal-ori­ented per­son. His style is not to lie awake at night wor­ry­ing about them but to get up in the morn­ing (or the mid­dle of the night) and do some­thing about it. I love the guy for it :)”

So even when you are driven to your desk in the mid­dle of the night, quot­ing Norse proverbs, when you are among the most in­formed and most con­cerned, the or­di­nary ten­der mer­cies of the home con­spire in our de­nial. We pour our en­ergy into do­ing our jobs the best we can, avoid un­pleas­ant top­ics, keep up a brave face, make com­pro­mises with even the best so­ci­eties, and lit­tle by lit­tle the com­part­men­tal­iza­tion we need to sur­vive the day adds one more bit of dis­tance be­tween the com­fort­able now and the hor­rors ahead. So Box turns out to be a rep­re­sen­ta­tive fig­ure after all. It’s not enough to un­der­stand the changes that are com­ing. We have to find a way to live with them.

“In Den­mark,” Box says, “we have the re­silience, so I’m not that wor­ried about my daugh­ter’s liveli­hood go­ing for­ward. But that doesn’t stop me from strate­giz­ing about how to safe­guard her fu­ture—I’ve been look­ing at prop­erty in Green­land. As a pos­si­ble bug- out sce­nario.”

Turns out a per­son can’t own land in Green­land, just a house on top of land. It’s a nice thought, a com­fort­ing thought— no matter what hap­pens, the house will be there, safely hid­den at the top of the world.

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