It’s Time for Climate Change “Alarmists” to Embrace the Name

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 20 2014 12:39 PM

Why I’m a Climate Change Alarmist

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Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines with the strongest tropical cyclone landfall ever recorded.

Photo by Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images

I’m sick of having to hide it, so here goes: I’m a climate change alarmist.

There, I said it. After years of fighting off Internet trolls and being ridiculed on Fox News for caring about the Earth and its inhabitants enough to make big changes to my life, I’ve had enough. It’s time that we climate change alarmists reclaim this dismissive term and defend ourselves.

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Many of us have been lambasted for talking about the fundamental health of the planet. Climate scientist Kerry Emanuel has written “those interested in treating the issue as an objective problem in risk assessment and management are labeled ‘alarmists,’ a particularly infantile smear considering what is at stake.”

Now, I’m also an optimist. I’m convinced that humanity has the ability to tackle the problem and come to international agreement on how to do so in a fair way. It simply must happen. But for something so serious, it seems like there’s a general lack of alarm, a lack of emotion, and—to be blunt—a lack of ambition to act with the scale and urgency the issue requires.

Tragically, there’s a vast mismatch between our actions to date and what’s needed. This isn’t just another big environmental issue. When the ozone hole was discovered decades ago, the world got together and agreed to change the chemical used in making refrigerators cold. In hindsight, that seems incredibly easy compared to this. Climate change cuts to the core of who we are as a civilization and what kind of world we want to create for our kids. Perhaps understandably, that’s meant that a lot of smart people are really pessimistic about our future.

I may be optimistic, but I’m not naive. I know that the vast majority of humans don’t make daily decisions based on analyzing scientific charts and graphs. The climate change alarmism community has made some strategic mistakes by incessantly focusing on the science and expecting grand changes. In my view, to make any sort of real progress, we’ve instead got to embrace our humanity—and yes, that means shedding the occasional tear when the reality of our situation really hits home.

Last year, days after watching his home country, the Philippines, utterly destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan—the strongest tropical cyclone landfall ever recorded worldwide—climate commissioner Yeb Saño broke down in the middle of the United Nations’ international climate change negotiations, saying “we cannot sit and stay helpless staring at this international climate stalemate. It is now time to take action.” His tears motivated an impromptu global movement. At this point, we need fewer lightbulb-changing PSAs and more of this.

As a scientist and journalist, I’m not supposed to have emotions. I’m supposed to calmly report researchers’ findings as if my family and I weren’t also being affected. But looking at the data in as much detail as I have, it’s impossible not to be alarmed. On an average day, I’m also disgusted, terrified, and angry.

So why aren’t more people outraged?

Few things are more important to human life than the environment, but hundreds of generations of experience have baked in a reasonable assurance that the future will be approximately like the past.

For the first time in human history, it won’t.

Save the specter of nuclear war or an Armageddon-style asteroid strike, there’s really not much that could wipe us out as quickly as climate change. Those two things haven’t happened (yet), but global warming is happening, right now.

The biggest problem with responding to climate change is that at the human scale, it’s impossible to fathom what’s happening. The problem isn’t how hot it’s getting (it’s been hotter before for different reasons) but the sheer rate of change. In a sentence, here’s what’s happening: Carbon-storing rocks, gas, and oil that took millions of years to accumulate are being returned to the atmosphere over a period of a few decades—almost instantaneously. That’s producing geologic-timescale changes in the span of a single human lifetime.

If you’re a piece of basalt, maybe you can think on geologic timescales. I can’t.

Within our lifetimes, we’ll almost assuredly enter a climate phase that hasn’t been seen since before humans even existed. And the scarier thing, for me, is what’s needed to get back on track. The scale of the problem demands a revolution in thought and action. Pioneering climate scientist James Hansen, who recently quit his job at NASA so he could protest more effectively, is calling for a “human tipping point.”

A lot of us get a mental short circuit when we think about climate change. It’s so crazy, it can’t possibly be happening, right?

The most visible manifestation of this is the debate between hard-core climate activists and vocal skeptics who deride the scientific consensus. I think this is distracting, so I’ve tried to largely remove myself from it. (Don’t feed the trolls, right?) There’s been a fascinating line of research lately that examines something called “stealth denial.” It’s become clear that vast sections of society—including people who can really make a difference—have largely tuned out climate change. This seems to be happening for three reasons: They believe they don’t contribute to the problem that much, they believe that the problem is so scary that they hope it goes away, or they believe their individual actions to help out won’t matter that much anyway. Here’s what our message should be: You can make a difference. In fact, you’re our best hope.

In last week’s Slate Culture Gabfest podcast, there was a fabulous discussion of talking about the weather. In conversations with friends, it’s clear that there’s a growing realization that something is somehow different. In the Gabfest, Dana Stevens said she thought that weather and climate has recently re-entered public discourse in a way that’s new: “The two things are woven together in ways we can't extricate.” John Swansburg lamented the loss of the traditionally easy conversation starter: “Talking about the weather brings up all these fears and anxieties that maybe it didn’t in the past.” The hard part is turning that fear and anxiety into real change.

It’s clear to me the status quo isn’t working anymore. It’s time to shake things up. Our actions for the next few years and decades will determine if basic things like agriculture and coastal living can continue on for the next hundreds of years in vast stretches of the planet. More importantly, it’s time for us to embrace the range of emotions we feel when confronted with the realization that the planet we’ve known for generations is fundamentally changing. Right now, with calm, clear rationality, big corporations and their friends in Congress continue to claim that they've got everything under control.

And if that isn’t something to be alarmed about, I don’t know what is.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Eric Holthaus is a meteorologist who writes about weather and climate for Slate’s Future Tense. Follow him on Twitter.

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