The plight and fight of the climate scientist

For all our encouragement that resilient investors should consider the full range of possible futures, and our respect for the array of thought leaders that inspire our archetypal Dreamers, Dealers, Doomers, Dualists, and Drivers, it really all comes down to one simple question: are we f**ked?  Pity the climate scientists, who most fully understand the forces we’ve unleashed, and who spend their days (and sleepless nights) grappling with the implications.  A recent feature in Esquire takes us into their world, and their homes, offering a sobering glimpse of what life is like for those among us who know the most.  Says one researcher who answered that aforementioned simple question by publicly affirming that, yes, we are: “I think most scientists must be burying overt recognition of the awful truths of climate change in a protective layer of denial.” A climate activist terms it “pre-traumatic stress.”  This article, When the End of Civilization is Your Day Job, is well worth the ten minute read; it’s really quite moving, and rather unsettling, since even the scientists who resist despair don’t seem to have much to offer in the way of specific encouragement.

So it was a welcome solace to see one of Andrew Revkin’s in-depth reports a few days later, on a climate science meeting attended by 2000 top researchers and policy-makers that he found “refreshing in several ways”:

The meeting, Our Common Future Under Climate Change, was refreshing in several ways — the main one being the depth and breadth of scientific engagement on ways to bend trajectories toward better outcomes, both in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and boosting resilience to climate hazards. This presented a marked contrast to a similar science meeting held in Copenhagen in the spring of 2009 ahead of the failed climate treaty talks in that city later that year. Read the core messages then and now to get the sense of the shift — a constructive one, to my eye.

Encouragingly, this week’s conference was also only partly framed around tweaking outcomes in the negotiations coming in this city in December, aimed at crafting a “universal climate agreement” under which all countries flexibly pursue and reliably report actions aimed at limiting global warming or its impacts. The majority of sessions described how communities, industries or national and local governments could make energy and climate progress with or without a treaty. This reflects the spreading recognition that relying on top-down treaty-making as the determinative factor in shaping the human-climate relationship is wishful thinking.

As usual, Revkin’s post is rich with links to a host of relevant papers, presentations, and related articles of his; it’s a home-study science and policy seminar in its own right!  In what could be a perfect segue from the Esquire piece, he quotes Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, who said science can do far more than characterize the climate problem: “The climate community has focused a lot on presenting the vision of the future we’re trying to avoid. It’s equally, if not more, important to present the vision of the future we’re trying to create.”

And of course, we’re always glad to see the ways that resilience keeps cropping up at a guiding theme; in this case, Revkin stresses the value of pursing a wide range of responses to our climate challenge:

In gauging the mix of insights and discussions in this plenary and throughout the meeting, I saw fresh echoes of an important 2003 paper on ecosystem resilience by Thomas Elmqvist of Stockholm University and others. They found that the diversity of responses in a system to environmental stresses is a key factor determining its capacity to continue to thrive. I see the lessons in that paper as powerfully applicable to human social systems.

In essence, it’s utterly human to have varied responses to change and challenges – in this case humanity’s intertwined energy and climate challenges. Some pursue fossil fuel divestment, others a more transparent energy menu in which the full costs of choices are accounted for and subsidies revealed or eliminated. Others seek renewable-energy breakthroughs or a new generation of nuclear power plants. Others focus on social or technical approaches to boosting the ability of societies to thrive in a changing climate.  Rather than looking at these preferences as right or wrong, I see them as part of a broadening commitment to a new and durable relationship with both energy and climate.

As you grapple with your own ways of dealing with our climate crisis, both of these articles will reward your time and attention.  Our next couple of posts will look at two very different responses to where we are right now: one that sees imminent promise within the current economic system, and another that is certain it’s too late for all that.

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