Decades Of Awareness, But Not Enough Action

Kolbert-HansenAnniversary

Thirty years ago, James Hansen, a scientist at nasa, issued a warning about the dangers of climate change. The predictions he and other scientists made at the time have proved spectacularly accurate. Photograph by Charles Ommanney / The Washington Post / Getty

I have always been appropriately alarmed by Elizabeth Kolbert’s articles and her comment pieces in the New Yorker. This brief comment below is alarming enough, but with a twist. Science has done its job, but we as citizens, business people, civic leaders have not acted with sufficient urgency considering the clear scientific evidence.

IMG_7014It may be true that scientists have not been the most compelling communicators, but that is no excuse for our inaction. As someone who left a scientific career developing a theoretical framework for entrepreneurial conservation in favor of opportunities to apply those ideas in the real world, I am in the same boat as a climate scientist. I look around today, after decades of best effort and I conclude that we have not accomplished enough in our practice. In our efforts to offer alternatives to messier forms of tourism, we have not accomplished enough. That is discouraging. But discouragement is not an option. We must find a better way to communicate that generates the required action for a less messy planet:

Listening to James Hansen on Climate Change, Thirty Years Ago and Now

On June 23, 1988—a blisteringly hot day in Washington, D.C.—James Hansen told a Senate committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.” At the time, Hansen was the head of nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and though his testimony was certainly not the first official warning about the “greenhouse effect”—a report to President Lyndon Johnson, in 1965, predicted “measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate” in the decades to follow—it was the first to receive national news coverage. The Times ran the story at the top of the front page, with a graph showing a long-term rise in average global temperatures.

This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of Hansen’s testimony, and it would be hard to think of a more lugubrious milestone. In the intervening three decades, nearly half of the Arctic ice cap has melted away, the oceans have acidified, much of the American West has burned, lower Manhattan, South Florida, Houston, and New Orleans have flooded, and average temperatures have continued to climb. Just last week, a team of scientists reported in Nature that the rate of melt off Antarctica has tripled in the past decade; as the Washington Post put it, “If that continues, we are in serious trouble.” (Were the Antarctic ice to melt away entirely, global sea levels would rise by two hundred feet; if just the more vulnerable West Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, sea levels would rise by about ten feet.) Also last week, scientists reportedthat most of Africa’s oldest baobab trees have died, probably because of climate change, and last month researchers showed that rising CO2 levels were reducing the nutrient content of rice, which is probably the single most important food source for people. Yet Washington continues to ignore the problem, or, worse still, to actively impede efforts to address it. How can this be?

A possible answer, which seems to be the one that Hansen himself, at least in part, subscribes to, is that scientists are to blame. Hansen is now seventy-seven and retired from nasa. He recently told the Associated Press that he regrets not being “able to make this story clear enough for the public.” Many climate scientists seem similarly to believe that they are not good at conveying information to lay audiences, and, as a result, dozens of Web sites and several whole organizations have been created to help them communicate better.

As someone who has interviewed a lot of climate scientists—including, on several occasions, Hansen—I can attest that, as a group, they are not particularly good at expressing themselves. (I once wrote a Profile of Hansen, and watched him lose even audiences predisposed to adore him.) But thirty years into the so-called climate debate—fifty-three years, if you go back to the report to L.B.J.—I also think it’s time to put this particular story line to rest…

Read the whole comment here.

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