When Plan­e­tary Catas­tro­phe Is Your Day Job

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Com­ment by Les­ley Hughes

The smil­ing young woman ap­proaches me, hand out­stretched to shake mine. “I just wanted to say how much I en­joyed your talk,” she en­thuses. I thank her warmly; I’m as grate­ful for a com­pli­ment as the next per­son. But my heart is sink­ing. I’ve failed, again. The “en­joy­able” talk I’ve just de­liv­ered was about cli­mate change and its im­pacts, now and in the fu­ture – plan­e­tary catas­tro­phe in a 40-minute Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tion. And now the au­di­ence is fil­ing out, ea­ger for a cof­fee or some­thing stronger, al­ready think­ing about where to get a taxi, or what to have for din­ner, or any one of a mil­lion things other than mount­ing a rev­o­lu­tion to save the planet. I give a lot of th­ese talks – to univer­sity stu­dents, busi­ness groups, com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions, any­one who’ll lis­ten. I work hard to be en­gag­ing, keep­ing the text and com­plex graphs to a min­i­mum, adding lots of pictures and analo­gies, per­sonal anec­dotes and even the odd joke. And therein lies the co­nun­drum. As a sci­en­tist I feel a com­pul­sion to de­liver the facts as we cur­rently un­der­stand them. But too much gloom and doom is paralysing. Apoca­lypse fa­tigue can send peo­ple un­der the metaphor­i­cal doona. How to bal­ance mo­ti­va­tion and de­spair? Some­times it feels like there are just as many peo­ple giv­ing advice about how to com­mu­ni­cate cli­mate change as there are peo­ple gath­er­ing data on it. Re­frame the prob­lem, we are told. Talk about kids and health, not po­lar bears and dis­as­ter. Talk about in­sur­ance and op­por­tu­ni­ties, about be­ing smarter, health­ier, hap­pier. Talk about now, not decades hence. Talk lo­cal, not global. And so on. At the same time, some tell us we are not be­ing scary enough. Ian Dunlop is a for­mer chair of the Aus­tralian Coal As­so­ci­a­tion. Hav­ing come across from the dark side with a vengeance, he is now ex­co­ri­at­ing in his crit­i­cism of Aus­tralia’s “Or­wellian” cli­mate-pol­icy de­bates and the politi­cians who shirk their moral re­spon­si­bil­ity. In What Lies Be­neath: The Sci­en­tific Un­der­state­ment of Cli­mate

Risks, Dunlop goes even fur­ther: he and co-au­thor David Spratt call out sci­en­tists for be­ing too cau­tious in the ab­sence of perfect data, too ret­i­cent to tell it like it is. We’re not all so cau­tious. John Schellnhu­ber, found­ing direc­tor of the Pots­dam In­sti­tute for Cli­mate Im­pact Re­search, is prob­a­bly the most in­flu­en­tial cli­mate sci­en­tist you’ve never heard of. Among other things, Schellnhu­ber was the guy who pro­posed the 2 de­grees Cel­sius guardrail for global warm­ing that was first adopted by the Ger­man gov­ern­ment and the Euro­pean Union and even­tu­ally em­bod­ied in the Paris cli­mate agree­ment. In 2011, Schellnhu­ber was a guest speaker at the Four De­grees or More? Aus­tralia in a Hot World con­fer­ence in Melbourne. His an­swer to the rhetor­i­cal ques­tion “What is the dif­fer­ence be­tween a 2-de­gree and a 4-de­gree world?” was as bru­tal as it was suc­cinct: “Hu­man civil­i­sa­tion.” We’re a funny lot, re­ally, us cli­mate-change sci­en­tists. Like the rest of the sci­en­tific pro­fes­sion, we get up each morn­ing and go to our of­fices and lab­o­ra­to­ries and field sites. We col­lect and an­a­lyse our data and write pa­pers for learned jour­nals. But here’s where we go off the rails: we’re the only mem­bers of the sci­en­tific pro­fes­sion who also hope ev­ery day that we’re wrong. Hope we’re wrong about the rate of sea-level rise ac­cel­er­at­ing so fast that the homes of per­haps a bil­lion peo­ple could be in­un­dated by the end of the cen­tury. Hope we’re wrong about the demise of our most pre­cious nat­u­ral icon, the once mag­nif­i­cent Great Bar­rier Reef. Hope we’re wrong that the rate of glacier melt in the An­des and the Ti­betan Plateau threat­ens the fresh­wa­ter sup­plies of more than one sixth of the world’s pop­u­la­tion. Hope we’re wrong that dis­place­ment of peo­ple across the globe by in­creas­ing weather-re­lated dis­as­ters could even­tu­ally make the cur­rent refugee cri­sis look like small beer. Hope, hope, hope … The early 20th-cen­tury Ital­ian Marx­ist An­to­nio Gram­sci put it most el­e­gantly when he wrote of the ten­sion be­tween the “pes­simism of the in­tel­lect and the op­ti­mism of the will”. He wasn’t, of course, re­fer­ring to cli­mate change, but he might as well have been. The daily feed of cli­mate change–re­lated sto­ries in my in­box em­bod­ies this ten­sion. It is re­plete with ex­am­ples of new so­lar farms, ex­cit­ing tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances in bat­tery stor­age, the growth of fos­sil­fuel di­vest­ment by com­pa­nies and even gov­ern­ments. But scat­tered among th­ese feel-good sto­ries are mo­ments of sheer heart-stop­ping, lie-awake-at-night ter­ror: ac­cel­er­at­ing ice loss in the Antarc­tic, weak­en­ing of the Gulf stream, tem­per­a­tures in the Arc­tic spik­ing to 25 de­grees Cel­sius above nor­mal last Fe­bru­ary. (Yes, 25! Not a typo.) Sci­en­tists are sup­posed to be ob­jec­tive, calmly weigh­ing ev­i­dence like the blind­folded Lady Jus­tice, rather than flawed and fright­ened hu­man be­ings on an emo­tional roller­coaster os­cil­lat­ing daily be­tween hope and de­spair. The emo­tional health of cli­mate-change sci­en­tists has it­self at­tracted re­search at­ten­tion. A study by Les­ley Head and Theresa Harada, pub­lished in the jour­nal Emo­tion, Space and So­ci­ety last year, drew on in­ter­views with 13 Aus­tralian sci­en­tists to de­scribe the “emo­tional labour” of study­ing cli­mate change. Quot­ing the sci­en­tists un­der pseu­do­nyms, the study ex­plored the frus­tra­tion and anx­i­ety felt by some cli­mate sci­en­tists who at the very least know they are held to a far greater stan­dard of in­fal­li­bil­ity than other sci­en­tists, and in more ex­treme cir­cum­stances have faced hate mail and even death threats. Cop­ing mech­a­nisms ranged from gal­lows hu­mour to avoid­ing men­tion­ing one’s work in so­cial sit­u­a­tions to read­ing trashy nov­els to turn off. The cli­mate-sci­en­tist psy­che has even been ex­plored via art. In 2014, ANU grad­u­ate stu­dent Joe Dug­gan be­gan ask­ing cli­mate-change sci­en­tists to send him a short, hand­writ­ten let­ter on how they feel about cli­mate change. The re­sult­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of the let­ters, Is This How You Feel?, re­vealed dis­may, anx­i­ety, frus­tra­tion, fear, de­pres­sion, fury, dis­cour­age­ment and sad­ness, but also hope, op­ti­mism and de­ter­mi­na­tion not to quit. Some­times I’d like to quit. Once upon a time I was a bi­ol­o­gist. I miss it. But af­ter fol­low­ing ants around the bush for four years in the late ’80s to get a PhD in be­havioural ecol­ogy I was ready for a change. “Cli­mate change might be a thing,” my PhD su­per­vi­sor said (or words to that ef­fect). It seemed a good idea at the time, and a lot more likely to equip me for an ac­tual job that paid cash money than fol­low­ing more ants. In the 20-plus years since, I have dis­cov­ered that cli­mate-change sci­ence is the Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia of re­search – you can check out any time you like, but the moral chal­lenge (to quote a for­mer prime min­is­ter) that comes with it means that leav­ing is sim­ply not an op­tion. On my darker days, I look at the re­search go­ing on all around me, and I won­der. What is the point, for ex­am­ple, of se­quenc­ing the genome of this crea­ture or that, if said crea­ture might have such a lim­ited time on this planet that all this knowl­edge will be for naught? At the same time, I envy those col­leagues for whom the worst prob­lem in their aca­demic life is to miss out on a grant, or get a pa­per re­jected. How sim­ple that life seems. It’s not all gloom, of course. Paris in De­cem­ber 2015 was a glo­ri­ous, hope­ful mo­ment. When the then French for­eign min­is­ter, Lau­rent Fabius, brought down the gavel on the cli­mate agree­ment in that room in Le Bour­get, there were hugs and kisses and tears of relief. And the tsunami of global in­vest­ment in re­new­able en­ergy since then con­tin­ues apace, now out­strip­ping that for fos­sil fu­els by an in­creas­ing mar­gin. But even th­ese bright lights are not enough. The United Na­tions’ lat­est emis­sions gap re­port finds that only a third of the

The gov­ern­ment wound back the Re­new­able En­ergy Tar­get, and we re­main the only de­vel­oped coun­try to re­peal a car­bon price.

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