Sad, angry, guilty, some hope – climate scientists reveal their feelings

As a weather attribution study finds that climate change made the weather that drove the devastating Australian fires 30% more likely, Joe Duggan, a science communicator at ANU returned to his project of asking climate scientists how they feel about climate change.

Graham Readfern explains that Duggan was bowled over when he first started the project in 2014.

Prof Katrin Meissner was one of the first:

    “It makes me feel sad. And it scares me,” Meissner wrote.

    “It scares me more than anything else. I see a group of people sitting in a boat, happily waving, taking pictures on the way, not knowing that this boat is floating right into a powerful and deadly waterfall.”

Duggan says her letter really hit him, “It was so … unscience-y. Almost poetic.”

    “It became a big part of my life,” Duggan says. “I felt a little bit out of my depth. It took its toll on me and in the end I felt I had to step away. I went into my shell and pretty much turned off my phone for three years.

    “But I’ve got some emotional resilience back now. My partner and I found out we’re pregnant – due in August. I don’t want that kid to grow up asking why we didn’t actually do anything.”

Duggan has set up a site Is this how you feel? From there you can open the 40 replies received in 2014 and the 10 replies received when he wrote again in 2019. Here are some excerpts.

Stefan Rahmstorf

Rahmstorf is probably in the top 10 climate scientists in the world. Here is his 2014 response:

    Sometimes I have this dream.

    I’m going for a hike and discover a remote farm house on fire.

    Children are calling for help from the upper windows. So I call the fire brigade. But they don’t come, because some mad person keeps telling them that it is a false alarm.

    The situation is getting more and more desperate, but I cant convince the firemen to get going.

    I cannot wake up from this nightmare.

Katrin Meissner

From her 2019 response:

    The warming we see now is the result of decisions that have been taken years ago. And the decisions we take now will impact our children and grandchildren.

    How do I feel about it? I am still very worried. I am also profoundly sad. I am probably sadder than I was five years ago. I feel powerless and, to a certain extent, guilty. I feel like I have failed my duty as a citizen and as a mother because I was not able to communicate the urgency of the situation well enough to trigger meaningful action in time.

    What we are doing right now is an uncontrolled, risky experiment with the planet we live on.

    There is unfortunately nothing intelligent about this behaviour.

Kevin Trenberth

In his 2014 response he said he had some hope. But:

    In general I feel quite pessimistic about the future and the kind of planet we will leave the future generations. It seems likely that we will continue to boom and then bust in one-way or another. The main way we “deal” with it is to have lots of regional wars and conflicts. What happens when regional becomes intercontinental? Step back from our planet and observe our species and its (lack of) governance. Now that is scary.

Now in 2019:

    For the most part my comments of 19 September 2014 still apply except that the glimmer of hope has diminished if not vanished entirely. With Obama as U.S. President and the Paris agreement in late 2015, a glimmer of hope seemed to emerge, but with Trump and his ignorant accomplices, the hope has vanished. I am close to retirement and as I was cleaning up in 2019 I found some old VHS tapes recording me on shows, such as the Lehrer News Hour on PBS in 1988 (for 8-9 minutes), and the message then was much the same as now except we are now more confident and the progress has been nil. It was depressing. My solution has been to move back to New Zealand along with my daughter and family (grandchildren).

Wenju Cai

Back in 2014 he highlights the ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires. Then:

    Research has shown that if emission of greenhouse gasses continues at the present rate, extreme El Nino events, as occurred in 1982/83, which contributed to the severity of Ash Wednesday bushfire, will double in frequency of climate extremes induced by changes in the Indian Ocean will increase by a factor of three. Such extremes were responsible for the catastrophic 1997 floods in East African countries, killing many thousand and displacing several hundred thousands more.

    We owe our grandchildren concrete actions to reduce greenhouse emission so that their world is a safer place less impacted by climate extremes.

Will Steffen

In 2014 he had just visited Arnhem Land where:

    I was struck by the beauty of the landscapes and seascapes, the rich variety of species, and the staggering amount of art, going back 60,000 years, that permeate the landscape. The first Australians clearly learned how to live in tune with the land, understanding and respecting the great cycles of planet Earth that provide the goods and services that support human life.

    We think we have come a long way from they but – in one very important respect – we have regressed significantly. The first Australians were intimately connected with the biosphere around them, and made sure that future generations had the same, stable life support system they had. Present day Australians, however, have increasingly cut themselves off from the biosphere, ignorant of its functioning and importance, and rapidly eroding it’s integrity.

    Climate change is one of many global changes that are destabilising our planetary life support system. It is ultimately a question of core values. Can we change our core values rapidly enough – and decisively enough – to halt our slide towards collapse? That is humanity’s most important question in the 21st century!

Brendan Mackay

Here’s the whole entry:

    Dear Earth,

    Just a quick note to say thanks so much for the last 4 billion years or so. It’s been great! The planetary life support systems worked really well, the whole biological evolution thing was a nice surprise and meant that humans got to come into being and I got to exist!

    I’m really sorry about the last couple of 100 years – we’ve really stuffed things up haven’t we! I though we climate scientist might be able to save the day but alas no one really took as seriously. Everyone wants to keep opening new coal mines and for some reason that escapes me are happy to ignore the fact that natural gas is a fossil fuel. Well, no one can say we didn’t try!

    You’re probably quietly happy that “peak human” time has come and gone and it’s kind of all downhill for us now, though I guess you’re more than a bit miffed at what we’ve done to your lovely ecosystem (the forests and corals were a really nice touch by the way) and sorry again for the tigers, sharks etc.

    In case you were wondering, our modeling suggests that your global biogeochemical cycles (especially the carbon one) should reach a new dynamic equilibrium in about 100,000 years or so. I guess it will be a bit of a rocky road until then but, oh well, no one said the universe was meant to be stable!

    All the best and do try and maintain that “can do” attitude we love so much.

    Prof Brendan G. Mackey, PhD

    30 July 2014

I really liked those two. Steffen is right, we have to learn to live in nature, or we will ultimately be dealt with, as in Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia. Mackey’s letter reminds me of a comment I heard on talkback a few decades ago. Someone was suggesting that in 50 million years time some new intelligent being might find the imprint homo sapiens left on the planet – a layer of toxic slime in the geological record.

That is probably too apocalyptic, but taking a dispassionate view, a population crash in a species which has reached plague proportions should not surprise.

Sorry about the talk of doom. There is a measure of optimism from some scientists, but much of it is of the “I’m optimistic because I’m an optimist” variety, or “I couldn’t do my work unless I had some optimism.” Then there are statements like, “Humanity has always risen to the occasion” when in fact humanity has seen nothing like this, or “It’s a great opportunity for everyone to get together, change all our instututions and the way we live.”

Motherhood statements – simplistic and naive.

My final extract is from Distinguished Professor Emeritus Richard C. J. Somerville, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. University of California, San Diego, who studied social science research on science communication and worked on communicating climate science.

Prof Somerville

Somerville said he worked with a partner, Susan Joy Hassol, an expert on communicating climate science. Much of what they did was shown on the website Climate communication. He says:

    We understand that people want to hear messages of hope. They want to learn about solutions to the threat and challenge of climate change. They are not interested in seeing this issue framed as only gloom and doom. I too want to be positive and hopeful, and it is cathartic for me to convey information not only about climate science, but also about the actions needed to limit global warming to tolerable levels.

People want hope, but we also need honesty. Greta Thunberg told the EU recently that “nature doesn’t bargain, and you cannot make deals with physics.”

Aiming for a 1.5°C does not envisage limiting global warming to ‘tolerable levels’, it envisages an already dangerous climate becoming worse, but with luck not catastrophic.

Meanwhile global action is ‘way off track’ says UN head :

    António Guterres sounded the alarm at the launch of the UN’s assessment of the global climate in 2019. The report concludes it was a record-breaking year for heat, and there was rising hunger, displacement and loss of life owing to extreme temperatures and floods around the world.

    Scientists said the threat was greater than that from the coronavirus, and world leaders must not be diverted away from climate action.

Here in Oz David Spratt and Ian Dunlop tell how PM Scott Morrison is failing his principal duty of protecting the people, Angus Taylor is to announce shift in climate investment away from wind and solar and the Morrison government is to stop funding international collaboration with Germany on a shift to zero emissions.

Poor fellow, my country.

11 thoughts on “Sad, angry, guilty, some hope – climate scientists reveal their feelings”

  1. In the 1950s and 1960s I was sad and baffled about the dangers of nuclear war.

    As it happened, the only direct nuclear war (so far) has been the attacks on two Japanese cities during WW2.

    This is not to argue that it can never happen.

    The nuclear warfare prospects have changed in innumerable ways since the 1960s.

    I still find the possibility of nuclear war or a smaller nuclear attack very sad and very baffling.

    But I also believe that the ways to overcome those dangers are through: geopolitics, diplomacy, national politics, people-power-pressure, historical understanding, etc.

    My sadness hasn’t contributed an iota of difference to a relevant outcome. But it has meant a lifetime of thought directed to that wicked problem.

    Sometimes, changing one’s mind can be an important step.

    Thank you and good night.
    Good luck!

    PS: the above is not intended as a “look over here; this is what you should really be worrying about !!”

    PPS the alternative title of “Dr Strangelove” was How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb

  2. “The Mouse That Roared” was a fine film indeed. And has in common with “Dr Strangelove”, if memory serves, the incomparable Peter Sellers playing several roles.

    In Strangelove – and strange it is to go back and visit memories of such a brilliantly macabre film – Sellers plays a bumbling President, an intelligent RAF officer, and an ex-N*zi scientist purloined by the US to assist with its nuclear weapons supremacy….

    Best to try Youtube…..

    Cheers, BilB.

  3. Loved “The Mouse that Roared” and the quirky end when we thought the world had been saved.
    Switch to Morrison on the box on Sunday morn. Not reassured.

  4. Not reassured. When we have Criminals, Psychopaths, and Narcissists as “leaders” of major economies and conflict zones, there is no scope for reassurance. But then along came the Boomer Doom Disease, its almost poetic. The missing element is specificity to which end, though, I am reading a speculative treatise at the moment titled “The Cull”. This article looks pragmatically at the global problem, identifies the pivotal perpetrators, explores methods to diminish or eliminate their means of influence, then moves into the complications of the consequences. It’ll be a good read when it is public.

  5. The Cull ” sounds intriguing and the type of treatise President Trump might call “nasty”.

    Without revealing confidential details, any indication when it may appear?

  6. Fair enough, BilB.

    Now, if I may use a phrase once derided when it de rigeur from the mouths of shop staff,

    Have a nice day!

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