Climate scientists: When the end of human civilization is your day job – ‘The business-as-usual world that we project is really a totally different planet’Posted by Jim at Monday, July 27, 2015
By John H. Richardson
7 July 2015
(Esquire) – 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 ten 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:
CLIMATOLOGIST SAYS ARCTIC CARBON RELEASE COULD MEAN "WE'RE FUCKED."
CLIMATE SCIENTIST DROPS THE F-BOMB AFTER STARTLING ARCTIC DISCOVERY.
CLIMATOLOGIST: METHANE PLUMES FROM THE ARCTIC MEAN WE'RE SCREWED.
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 350.org. In 2013, he made headlines when a magazine reported his conclusion that a seventy-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? […]
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 slide-show 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." […]
"Oh yeah," says climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, 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." […]
"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." […]
Box says 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." [more]