Apocalyptic Narratives, Climate Data, and Hope, with Zeke Hausfather and Diego Arguedas Ortiz

This episode of Warm Regards explores apocalyptic narratives, the role they play in inspiring — or limiting — climate action, and what it means to be hopeful about the future in a changing climate. Jacquelyn and Ramesh talk with Zeke Hausfather about what the latest climate science and data tell us about how much warming we can expect by 2100, and then with Diego Arguedas Ortiz about the different kinds of hope that can help lead to climate action.

Show Notes:

You can follow Zeke Hausfather on Twitter and find out more information about his work at the Breakthrough Institute.

For a more in-depth explanation from Zeke on the RCP 8.5 scenario, see his post on Carbon Brief.

You can read the IPCC 1.5 Report that both Zeke and Diego mentioned.

You can read Diego Arguedas Ortiz’s original article for the BBC on hope and follow him on Twitter.

Mary Annaïse Heglar writes about “doomer dudes” and much more in her Medium article, “Home is Always Worth It.”

You can find out more about Mothers of Invention at their website and listen wherever you get your podcasts.

Please consider becoming a patron to help us pay our producer, Justin Schell, our transcriber, Joe Stormer, and our social media coordinator, Katherine Peinhardt, who are all working as volunteers. Your support helps us not only to stay sustainable, but also to grow.

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The full transcript of this episode can be found below.

Jacquelyn Gill
Every few months, I hop onto Twitter for an AMA — “ask me anything.” I’ve done these for years, and the questions are usually really wide-ranging and fun, covering anything form the causes of ice ages or why woolly mammoths went extinct, or even what my favorite books are, or how I got into science. About a year ago, though, something changed. Instead of questions about Earth’s climate or my favorite fossils, people wanted to know if it really was too late to do anything about climate change. A lot of people wanted to know if the world was really going to end in seven to ten years. One person even asked, “Is there any point in having kids?”

And in the months since, I’ve seen this sense of hopelessness growing — especially among youth. When I first started talking publicly about climate change over a decade ago, it felt like very few people were paying attention. It was rarely mentioned in the news, and a lot of the focus in the climate conversation was on getting Americans to believe that human-caused climate change was real in the first place. And then, the conversation pivoted, really quickly — public belief in climate change increased, and so did the media coverage, but there was also this growing emphasis on apocalyptic futures. It’s like the public anxiety about climate change and the click-bait nature of modern journalism started this feedback loop, and the media that had largely ignored climate change was now confusing what was possible with what was probable.

And that’s a problem, because we’ve somehow left a lot of people with the impression that there’s nothing we can do about climate change — and that’s simply not true. It’s been frustrating to watch this new dynamic unfold — we’ve spent so much of the last decades trying to convince the public that climate change is real, but now we have a completely different problem: convincing people that it’s not too late to do something about it. I do think a lot of this has to do with the way the media talks about climate change, but we’re also starting to see the signs of a warming world in our own backyards. As I record this introduction, it’s one of the last days of a genuinely terrible year for climate extremes. The wildfires in California, Australia, and Siberia were the stuff of nightmares, and the 2020 hurricane season had us running out of alphabet and naming storms after Greek letters for only the second time in history.

These are the kinds of impacts that climate scientists have been warning people about for decades. But what I don’t think any of us predicted is that instead of being motivated by these kinds of headlines, a lot of folks feel immobilized by despair. Even worse, some people (mostly white men) feel an almost evangelical need to convince others that it’s too late; climate writer and podcaster Mary Heglar calls them “doomer dudes.” And while anxiety or despair are perfectly natural responses to really awful news, I think doomerism actually represents a distorted understanding of the science. You’ve probably seen messaging like this: “1.5° is okay, but 2° means the total collapse of civilization and life as we know it. If we don’t hit net-zero emissions in ten years, it’s game over for planet Earth.” These kinds of narratives represent climate action as a binary: we win, or we lose big time. There are only two options.

The problem with this framework is not just that it’s wrong — I think it’s actively harmful, because it gives us permission to give up if we fail to meet ambitious targets. We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know increasingly which futures are more likely than others. Last July, one of the most important climate studies in years came out, which answered a lot of our most pressing questions about something called “climate sensitivity” — which is basically how sensitive the Earth is to greenhouse gas emissions and how much it’s likely to warm as a result. That study found that the best-case scenarios are no longer likely — but neither are some of the worst-case scenarios. We’ve basically narrowed the range of possibilities, but what ultimately happens is still up to us. 1.5° warming is looking less and less likely, but the world looks very different with 2, 3, and 4° of warming.

Climate scientists will tell you that there is no magic number — no point of no return beyond which action on climate is meaningless. So instead of binaries, I prefer to think in terms of harm reduction, borrowing a concept from public health. When it comes to climate action, a no-harm scenario just isn’t possible, because harm has already happened. But the more we do now, the more harm we can prevent in the future. And that means that acting on climate change will always be worth it, no matter how bleak things may seem. We also know from climate communication research that fear by itself is not a great motivator — it can backfire, and cause people to fall into despair. There’s a line in Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic novel, Year of the Flood, that I come back to often: “We must be a beacon of hope, because if you tell people there’s nothing they can do, then they will do worse than nothing.”

So for this episode, we’re tackling apocalyptic narratives, as a first step in fighting doomerism and despair. We first walk through what the newest data actually tell us about our climate future. Then, we’ll talk about the role of hope in the global climate conversation.

Our first guest is climate scientist Zeke Hausfather, Director of Climate and Energy at The Breakthrough Institute — an environmental research center based in Oakland, California. Zeke also worked as a research scientist with Berkeley Earth, was the senior climate analyst at Project Drawdown, and US analyst for Carbon Brief. So he’s spent a lot of time thinking about future climate scenarios.

So, Zeke: let’s get straight to the point here. How much warming are we looking at by the end of this century?

Zeke Hausfather
So it’s a tough question to answer, because a lot of it still depends on us. But if we look at what countries have committed to and codified in short-term climate goals so far (and I’ll get to why that’s an important caveat later), we’re probably on track for something like 3° centigrade warming relative to preindustrial (so about 2° warmer than today) by the end of this 21st century — so by 2100. But of course the world doesn’t end in 2100, even though a lot of our models do so as long as our emissions remain above zero, the world will continue to warm after that until our emissions get to zero.

Jacquelyn
Right, we know we’ve warmed about one degree Celsius since pre-industrial times and, by our current best estimates, we’re looking at another two° by the end of this century?

Zeke
Yeah. So we could end up worse than that. we could have a world where the Trumps and the Bolsonaros and the various other sort of populists of the world rollback climate policy and subsidize burning coal directly (as Trump tried to do in his first term) or you could have a much better world where all these targets that countries like China are starting to set around net zero by 2060 are actually met and we really have a good chance of limiting warming to well below two° above pre-industrial levels. We’re sort of at an exciting moment right now because there’s so many commitments being made by countries, but these targets are also still aspirations more than operations and a lot of countries are not doing that great in meeting sort of their existing Paris Agreement targets. So we’re in a weird world right now where there’s a lot of expressed ambition, but we’re all sort of waiting to see how it gets translated into policy.

Jacquelyn
I think that’s a really important point. We’re looking at two or 3° Celcius of future warming, which we can say is “likely” based on what we know right now, but that’s not the same thing as “certain,” right? And that eventual climate future will largely come down to what governments are deciding to do right now.

Zeke
Yeah, and 3° is in some ways becoming a bit of a conservative case, right? 3° is the most likely outcome if we don’t really do anything beyond what we’ve already committed to for the rest of the century. That’s a pretty low bar, especially because we’ve already seen commitments well beyond that made this year by China, by South Korea, by Japan that are not included in that number. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get below that, and to be honest, I’m hopeful we’ll be able to get well below two° (though it is a big lift and requires getting global emissions to zero around 2070 or so). The one important caveat I want to give when I’m talking about all these numbers (like 3° by 2100 relative to preindustrial) is that’s a best estimate and holding sort of one set of uncertainties constant, which is our emissions. But there’s two other really big sets of uncertainties that we can talk about at length later if you guys want, which are sort of climate sensitivity (so how much it warms as CO2 in the atmosphere increases) and carbon cycle feedback — so how much of the C02 emitted remains in the atmosphere and how much that changes over time? Because of those a world that we think is going to warm 3° could really be anywhere between two° at the low end or even four and a half° at the high end (if we sort of roll sixes on all the climate dice). So we really have to be careful not to fixate too much on something like a 3 degree world (which would not be a good world by any means, particularly for natural systems), but if we go in expecting 3°, we could well end up with four and a half°. And so these sort of low probability / high impact outcomes should really shape our choices around emissions in the future

Jacquelyn
So it sounds like you’re saying we should be planning for the worst-case scenario of those potential futures (even though that scenario is less likely) and there’s really no real downside to that?

Zeke
Yeah. I mean, obviously there are trade offs at some point when it comes to the speed of our emission reductions; like if we were to literally stop all emissions tomorrow, it would have huge negative impacts on much of humanity because we still rely on fossil fuels for a lot of things. But broadly speaking, there are a lot of no regrets policies and, and the lower we get our emissions, the faster we lower emissions, the more we preclude these sort of really catastrophic possible outcomes.

Ramesh Laungani
So Zeke, you’ve highlighted a range of possible futures based on the decisions that we as humans make with our emissions. One of those futures that we hear a lot about is something called RCP 8.5. Can you give sort of a cliff notes version of what RCP 8.5 is for those people who might not be familiar with models or the IPCC?

Zeke
The RCPs were a set of future climate outcomes that were developed in the lead-up to the last IPCC report (the IPCC fifth assessment report). And the IPCC for a long time (ever since 1990) has as part of its process spearheaded or coordinated the development of future emission scenario, because one of the big uncertainties in the climate system that climate models are not able to calculate is what our future emissions will be, cuz those depend on economics; it depends on population; it depends on technology prices and all these other things. And so there’s a whole community of energy system modelers that in coordination with the IPCC has been creating emission scenarios since the ’90s. The previous set of emissions scenarios we’ll call the SRE scenarios and those were created I think around the year 2000. And so in the lead up to the fifth IPCC assessment report which came out in 2013, those were getting pretty old (the world had changed a fair bit since 2000) and so there was a desire to create a new set of of scenarios. Now the old SRE scenarios were sort of a set of coupled socioeconomic and emissions scenarios. They had population, GDP; they had some discrete assumptions about things like technology; and they laid out five different pathways the world could take in the absence of any new climate policy — they’re all sort of baseline work. There was a desire to do something like that for the IPCC fifth assessment report, and the energy modeling community started on that. But it turned out that they were running so far behind that they weren’t able to finish that modeling effort in time to create the scenarios that the climate modelers needed to run their climate models cuz climate models run on these giant supercomputers that takes years of processing time to do all the model runs needed for the IPCC. There was this bit of a challenge where they wanted to create this new set of scenarios. There wasn’t really time, and so they settled on this sort of stop gap called the representative concentration pathways, where they just created four sort of pathways of future radiative forcing and concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere that were broadly distinct from each other that that sort of represented four different end-of-century pathways: RCP 2.6 (which was sort of a below 2° scenario), RCP 4.5 (which is about a 2.8° scenario or so), RCP 6.0 (which was a 3.2°C scenario), and RCP 8.5 (which is like a 4.5° warming scenario) by 2100. They base these on a set of integrated assessment models that were run to generate emission scenarios. These integrated assessment models, three of them (the ones that used to generate RCP 2.6, 4.5 and 6.0) had some level of mitigation (you know, it’s very weak mitigation) and 6.0 had at least some level, and RCP 8.5 was the only one of the scenarios that was generated using an integrated assessment model that didn’t have any climate mitigation. It resulted in a very, very high emissions future. It was a world where we were using six times more coal by 2100 than we were using today — about eight times more than when the scenarios were first published. It’s a world where global emissions triple by the end of the century. Even at the time, it wasn’t really the sort of median baseline estimate in the literature. In fact, if you read some of the papers that first laid out the RCP 8.5 scenario, it was actually roughly the 90th percentile of no-policy baseline scenarios available in the literature at the time. So there’s a really big gap between RCP 6.0 (which was sort of at the low end of the baseline range in the literature at the time) and RCP 8.5 (which was the highest end — or the high end, I should say, not the highest — at the time). These scenarios, researchers started on them in the late 2000s; they were published in 2011, and the world has changed a lot since then. One of the problems is that because RCP 8.5 was the only sort of no-policy baseline scenario available in the IPCC fifth assessment report, it sort of became the business-as-usual scenario that a lot of modelers used for climate impact assessments. In fact, there’s thousands of papers that literally say, “in a business-as-usual scenario (RCP 8.5),” you know, “this level of sea level rise will happen; this level coral reef death will happen,” et cetera, et cetera. At the time you could have made the case that even though it was the high end of possible scenarios, it wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibility. But from where we are today, the idea that we’d have six times more coal use by 2100 is just not gonna happen. So there’s been a bit of a reassessment of where likely scenarios are headed and sort of how we should be using these scenarios in research going forward. I think we should still include these sort of scenarios in our modeling as worst case scenarios, but we should stop conflating the worst case with the most likely outcome — which is the problem that was pretty common in the literature in sort of the last five years.

Jacquelyn
I’d like to talk for a moment about the broader conversation around climate futures, and about how sometimes the messaging becomes decoupled from the actual science. What we think of a “business-as-usual” scenario is really changing in part because our business has been changing. But a lot of the reporting on climate models has focused on these high-emissions scenarios, even when those aren’t necessarily the most likely. In the last year or so, I’ve really started seeing people throw around this idea that we only have ten years to turn everything around and prevent catastrophic climate change. So can you talk a little bit about where this idea comes from? Why did people latch onto this idea of a ten-year window? And how accurate is it, exactly?

Zeke
So the “ten years to save the planet” number actually came from a Guardian headline writer; [laughs] it didn’t come from the IPCC. It was their interpretation of the IPCC Special Report on 1.5°. It sort of took on a life of its own and ran wild. But essentially what the number is based on is that if you want to limit warming to 1.5°° above pre-industrial levels (and bear in mind we’re at 1.2° today, so we’re talking about a very, very small level of additional warming in terms of how much emissions we can allow — so incredibly tight), we have to reduce our emissions or cut our emissions roughly in half in the next ten years and all the way to in the next twenty years, in a sort of very simple calculus. Now that calculus is actually not what is really used in most of the scenarios in the IPCC 1.5°C report. Rather, most of the energy system models that were tasked to create 1.5° warming scenarios essentially decided that that was impossible. And so what they do instead is have a more gradual decline, reaching net-zero emissions around 2050 (say so thirty years instead of twenty years) and make up for that by sucking an immense amount of carbon out of the atmosphere later on in the century. To put it in perspective, some of these models have two-to-three times the land area of India devoted to bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, sucking carbon out of the atmosphere every year in order to meet these targets. So you were talking about like planetary engineering type things that are a little mind boggling in their scale. But that’s the problem with having a target where we can only warm by 0.3°C more than where we are today; you’re really stuck with that choice. Either you have to get all emissions to zero incredibly quickly in twenty years (which it doesn’t violate the laws of physics, but I really don’t see that happening in terms of political or anything else) or you overshoot and you have to suck a bunch of carbon out of the atmosphere late in the century. That’s sort of the brutal math of the 1.5° target. Now 1.5° is a target for a reason, though the way it came about was a bit of a sort of “tail wags the dog” type thing. In the context of the Paris agreements, all the discussion and (to be honest) most of the scientific literature at the time was all about limiting warming to well below 2°. And what “well below 2°” means is taken to mean essentially is the RCP 2.6 scenario (which has about 1.8°C warming by 2100 above pre-industrial) and also conveniently has about a 66% chance of avoiding 2° warming, because again there’s this uncertainty in climate sensitivity. That’s where almost all of the scientific literature was in 2015 or so. Then in the Paris agreements, a lot of Small Island Nations got together and said, “Wait a minute! At 2° warming, we’re mostly underwater. That’s not acceptable,” and so they pushed for sort of a greater ambition. The way that that ended up getting resolved is the Paris agreement authors essentially said, “Okay, well, we’ll make the target still well below two°. And then we’ll say with sort of a goal of 1.5°.” But then the scientific community was like, “Huh, now there’s this new goal, but we don’t have any literature at all on 1.5° cuz we didn’t have any scenarios to run for that.” There weren’t any climate model runs that limited warming to 1.5°, available. Then the UN framework convention on climate change asked the IPCC to put together a special report on 1.5°, and it led to this huge amount of energy system modeling and simplified climate modeling (there weren’t too many actual fuller system models run for 1.5° because there wasn’t time) and a lot of sort of climate impact studies then using the output of those simple models to try to look at exactly what the differences between 1.5° and 2°. They published a big report (I think it’s two years ago now) and then it led to this sort of “ten years to save the planet” thing.

There are real differences between 1.5° and 2° warming, particularly for coral reefs; most coral reefs are probably not going to be able to survive 2° warming. There’s real impacts on sea level rise for Small Island Nations. There’s real impacts on things like agricultural yields. That said, a world of well below 2° is still one where humanity will by-and-large manage to adapt to. It’s not a catastrophic scenario by any stretch of the imagination. If we ended up at 1.8°, instead of 1.5°; it’s just not the best outcome. And so that’s one of the reasons I sort of take issue with this “ten years to save the planet” thing. Not only is it misrepresenting sort of what most of the models they get to 1.5° actually have us doing (which is this sort of overshoot plus negative emissions) but it also is sort of drawing this line of catastrophe after 1.5° in a way that’s really not supported by the scientific literature. Certainly there’s some specific ecosystems (coral reefs are probably the biggest example) where you can draw to an extent those sort of lines, but for the world as a whole, it’s certainly not defensible to say that like 1.5° is fine and 2° is catastrophe. You can say, “Look, four degrees is catastrophe.” You could even argue that 3° is catastrophe, though that’s a more challenging argument to be made for human systems, but certainly one that’s easier to make for natural systems. Two degrees is not where we want to end up in a perfect world, but it’s not the end of the world.

[music]

Justin Schell
Hey everyone, producer Justin Schell here. For the rest of the season, we’re featuring other climate change podcasts we think you should check out. On today’s episode, Thimali Kodikara (the producer and co-host of the podcast Mothers of Invention) talks about how the show focuses explicitly on feminist solutions to the climate crisis.

Thimali Kodikara
I’m Thimali Kodikara and I series produce and co-host a podcast called Mothers of Invention on feminist solutions to the climate crisis. I co-host it with Mary Robinson (who was the first woman president of Ireland) and Mauve Higgins (who is a very funny comedian), and we chat with mostly Black, Brown, and Indigenous women and girls from around the world who are fighting from the front lines of the climate crisis. And I wanted to share some data with you all that I found whilst researching our episode three this season on climate migration. It’s estimated 200 million people around the world will become climate migrants by 2050. So to understand what that will feel like, we spoke to Ursula Rakova from the Carteret Islands and Melanesia because her people are the first population in the world relocating due to sea level rise. And we also talked to Colette Pichon-Battle in the Louisiana bayou, who watched folks leave en masse after Hurricane Katrina. But the thing is Ursula is doing unprecedented work, bringing her indigenous community to mainland safety. And Colette founded the Gulf Center for Law and Policy to claim climate justice and ecological equity for her community. So we know that climate change is a manmade problem with a feminist solution, because who better to ask what to do than the folks who’ve been surviving it for generations. And if we support the most marginalized people in the planet, we know we’re supporting everybody.

Justin
You can find Mothers of Invention wherever you get your podcasts. Now back to our conversation with Zeke Hausfather.

Jacquelyn
What I find so frustrating is that when I’ve pushed back against this kind of binary thinking, I often hear people say things like, “Well, maybe we need to scare people a little bit because we’re not decarbonizing fast enough and we need to get people out in the streets,” etc. So, do you think that that Guardian article has a net positive or a net negative on the climate movement?

Zeke
It’s a hard question to answer. I’m not a fan of it, cuz I’m worried it’ll come back to bite us in a big way and we’ve certainly seen a rise of sort of doomerism in a way that we didn’t see five years ago. Now climate scientists like my friend Michael Mann spend more time on Twitter arguing with the doomists than they end up then they spend arguing with the climate skeptics, which is a bit of a change. But at the same time it is important to have impetus for action. That said, [sigh], it would be so easy to frame a two degree target in the same way. If we really want to limit warming to well below two degrees (the sort of primary Paris agreement goals), we can’t wait ten more years and do nothing. We need to start reducing emissions now, regardless. It’s not like we can bide our time if we have a slightly more realistic target we’re aiming for. The need for climate action is not necessarily predicated on this incredibly difficult to achieve target of limiting warming to only 0.3°C more than where we are at today. I’m worried that it sets us up for failure in a few more years when we’ve made modest progress but not transformational progress, and it becomes increasingly clear that the 1.5° target is sort of off the table — barring magical negative emissions late in the century. And so that’s my real worry, that we’re setting ourselves up for failure by focusing too much on what is almost impossible to achieve.

Ramesh
So you highlighted China pledging carbon neutrality by 2060, and other nations are trying to aim for carbon neutrality by 2050. But you hear a lot of doomers say that it’s too late. So in your opinion, is it too late?

Zeke
It’s a good question. You certainly can say if we have like three or four or five degrees warming, corn growing in Nebraska is going to be in pretty bad spot. Though even then, it really depends on what happens with agricultural technology. Are we genetically engineering more heat tolerant variants of corn? In human systems, there’s always this sort of race between adaptive capacity and climate impacts, to an extent that there isn’t necessarily in the natural world (and it’s important to distinguish those two). I’d be much more worried about farmers in Bangladesh than farmers in the Midwest in a warming world in terms of our ability to respond. But more broadly, though, a lot of climate discourse gets framed around thresholds and climate change is really a matter of degrees, not a matter of thresholds. The warmer it gets, the worse the impacts get in a non-linear way, right? Three degrees is a lot worse than two degrees. Four degrees is a lot, lot worse than three degrees. But at the same time, we don’t really have much evidence from climate models or from studying other systems that there’s global scale climate tipping points that could lead to runaway warming, that could lead to a massive amount of additional warming beyond what we expect to happen. There are a lot of processes in the Earth system that are non linear (coral reefs as an example I gave earlier, ice sheets is another good one) where once you pass a particular warming level over the long-term it’s really hard to get ice sheets to recover, and you’re sort of condemning them to a long, slow melt — at least in the absence of a world of large scale, negative emissions, but that gets complicated. And things like Arctic permafrost where at a high enough warming level, it is slowly going to melt and contribute to more warming going forward. But those are all fairly slow processes. They’re not, suddenly we go from having two degrees warming to having four degree warming between 2050 and 2080, because we hit some tipping points. To the extent that there are tipping elements in the climate system that affect global temperatures, they’re very slow gradual processes. They’re certainly worrisome (we don’t want a world where we’re committed to five or ten meters of sea level rise in the next five or six hundred years), and you could make the argument that two degrees we could end up there, but that’s a very different type of argument than like, “We’re all going to be dead in ten years,” cuz the timescales are simply just very different. Now, the only real climate tipping point I’ve seen in the literature that could be the sort of doomsday type thing is still a very tentative one that was published by a Tapio Schneider down at Caltech and some other folks last year or two years ago, I think now, where they looked at what would happen to stratocumulus cloud decks (which covered much of the world’s oceans) in very high warming worlds. They found that in worlds when you get above about 1300 parts per million CO2 (so we’re talking like high end RCP 8.5, four to five degrees warming), suddenly most of the world’s stratocumulus cloud decks disappear and you end up with about six degrees, additional warming in the course of decades beyond what you’ve already had. And so a world where you suddenly go from 4° to 10°C warming, that would be pretty apocalyptic. But at the same time they found that that was only really possible at very, very high levels of CO2 and, importantly, it could also help explain some of the climate conditions in paleoclimate periods under very, very highest CO2 levels. It was a very interesting study but again it was a very simple model (like single-column convective model) not like a global scale thing, because you can’t really do that level of sub-scale physical parameterization for a global climate model. But we don’t see anything like that at 1.5° or 2° or even 3°, though. You know, the challenge with warming is we have models, they’re not perfect. The earth system is complex. We know it’s changed rapidly in the past, through all of our paleoclimate research. And so the further we push the climate system past the bounds of where it’s been in the Holocene (the last ten thousand years) the greater the chance that “there be dragons”, right. There are “unknown unknowns”, to quote the one good thing Donald Rumsfeld ever said. That does give us reason to be cautious, but at the same time those are unknown unknowns. We don’t have these specific thresholds where we know that everything blows up. We should be cautious; we should really try to limit warming to below two degrees (and maybe if we have really good negative emissions technologies even further down than that) but at the same time, we shouldn’t worry that we’re all gonna die if we end up muddling through and have a 2.5° world by 2100. It’s not a world that will want to live in (a world that has a lot of impacts on human and natural systems), but it’s not the apocalypse.

Jacquelyn
And as I think Kate Marvel put it, the apocalypse is kind of an unnecessarily high bar to take action, right?

Zeke
Almost every other problem we deal with as a species, it’s not literally a human extinction issue — with possibly the exception of nuclear war. And yet we still deal with these problems like poverty, like malnutrition in a big way. And so I think it’s better to think of climate change in a similar vein than like this “The world is going to end” or “Everything’s going to be fine” dichotomy.

Jacquelyn
Are there any other nightmare scenarios that you see people worrying about that probably aren’t going to happen? I’m thinking about the Arctic methane bomb story that also came out in the Guardian. It wasn’t even about a published study; it was about fieldwork that was still in progress, and it turned out that there was a lot of reason to be really skeptical about catastrophic warming caused by Arctic ocean methane. Can you think of anything else that you might be able to alleviate people’s concerns about, in terms of our anxieties about potential apocalyptic futures?

Zeke
So that one is a big one that a lot of people talk about and there is real concern around permafrost, but that’s more of a long-term feedback that affects CO2 more than methane just cause methane has a very short atmospheric lifetime. If you look at some of these higher emissions scenarios, we could end up with another a hundred parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere from permafrost by 2300, in a world where we sort of keep emitting at our current levels — even outside of these worst case scenarios. Permafrost is certainly a really important part of the climate system and a really big impact, but it’s at least to the best of our knowledge not a sudden impact. There are small-scale sudden impacts in the context of permafrost (you can have regional methane sudden methane releases), but they’re not big enough to have very large global climate effects. The frozen methane on the seabed (these sort of methane hydrates or clathrates), they get a lot of attention. There’s been a lot of research done on them in recent years and there’s two things that come out of that. One is that when they do melt or destabilize through landslides or things like that, a lot of the methane ends up being absorbed by the ocean waters and by biological processes before it gets out to the atmosphere. And the second is that these methane hydrate deposits, when they do dissipate or melt they do so very slowly from the top down. So there’s not too many mechanisms apart from regional landslides or sea slides that could trigger very, very large volumes to be released. It’s certainly something we should keep our eyes on, but there’s not much evidence that there’s a looming methane bomb that could lead to a very notable amount of additional global warming in the short term.

Another area where there’s been sort of a lot of popular media discussion that’s varied a bit from the state of the sciences around the, the thermohaline circulation (or the AMO); it’s often called the ocean conveyor belt. Essentially what happens is that there’s big circulations in the ocean that are driven by changes in salinity of surface water. So as water moves up North through the Atlantic it evaporates, and as it evaporates it leaves behind the salt content of the seawater. That means the surface waters get saltier and saltier as more evaporation occurs and salty water, it turns out, is dense. And so this dense salty surface water starts sinking down into the deep and that drives a lot of ocean circulation — that process. So the worry is that as Greenland starts to melt in a big way, it’s putting a bunch of fresh water into the North Atlantic; we already see this showing up in many of our observations. And that fresh water reduces the salinity of the surface waters; it counteracts the effect of the evaporation. What that means is it can slow down this ocean conveyor belt. This was most famously dramatized in the movie of The Day After Tomorrow, which had so many scientific issues, I’m not even going to start.

Jacquelyn
But I love it. Sorry.

[Laughter]

Zeke
No worries. It is a very entertaining movie. There’s a real worry that’s been dramatized that this conveyor belt would shut down and it would stop bringing up warm waters that makes places like New York or the UK or even Iceland much more habitable than similar high latitude regions and other parts of the world that don’t have currents like that. What we actually see in our climate models is that the odds of a sudden shut down at thermohaline circulation are very low. It has happened in the past, but mostly because there was a giant inland lake covering much of the Americas caused by melting ice sheets that suddenly burst into the North Atlantic and poured an immense amount of fresh water in at once and that shut it down. What’s happening in Greenland is really concerning, but it’s much more gradual. So what we expect to see is a slowdown of the thermohaline circulation over the course of the century — not a stoppage — and that would cool (all things being equal) some of these higher latitude regions but at the same time the world is warming. So scenarios where you have a very large degree of slowdown — these very high emission scenarios — are also scenarios where the world is warming a lot. That warming, it turns out at least in most models in most regions is bigger than any cooling you’d get from a slow down to the thermohaline circulation. So at best, it’s probably just going to counteract or lead to slightly less warming we’d otherwise see in some of these regions — not like plunge the world into an ice age or anything crazy like that. That’s another thing that’s, that’s certainly worth watching and there’s a lot of other potential regional effects of that on things like precipitation that are certainly meaningful and could impact crop yields and things like that, but it’s not a global catastrophe that could strike at any minute,

Ramesh
So Zeke, throughout this whole discussion we’ve been using the words “possible” and “probable” and “likely”. I know when I’ve talked to my students about climate models I explicitly distinguish between “possible” and “probable”. How much of the concern about apocalyptic futures comes out of our inability as humans to grapple with uncertainty and how do we as scientists better distinguish between words like “possible” and “probable” and “likely” to help the public gain a clearer understanding of our climate future?

Zeke
That’s a good question. We shouldn’t necessarily discount low probability/high impact outcomes. In fact, there’s a great quote the late Marty Weitzman (who is a great climate economist at Harvard) where he said that, “When it comes to the damages of climate change, the sting is in the tail,” which is a really nerdy phrase because it refers to the tail of probability distributions. But essentially that these low probability/high impact outcomes make up a disproportionate amount of the damages in a lot of climate scenarios. It’s not the three degree world, it’s the non-trivial chance of the five degree world that really should scare us, so it’s important to model those. But as I mentioned earlier, it’s also just important to be clear when we’re talking about them, what is a worst-case outcome and what is a likely outcome. And that applies both to our emission scenarios and our scenarios of climate impacts. I feel like where we’ve sort of run into trouble at times is because a lot of the climate impact literature unfortunately conflated one of the worst case emissions scenarios with the most likely scenario in a world of no climate action. We sort of ended up with a literature of climate impacts that also implicitly portrays what are relatively low probability outcomes (because they occur at a five degree warming world), with most likely outcomes in a world without climate action. Better treatment of a futures emission scenario helps there. But when we were also talking about things like tipping points, then we’re also talking about low probability impacts even at high warming scenarios, it becomes even harder to effectively discuss. It’s a challenge; I don’t have an easy answer on that one. But I think that more clarity both around the scenarios we use and how we talk about low probability/high impact events is important.

Jacquelyn
We’ve spent a lot of time focusing our discussion on what could go wrong and the likelihood of various apocalyptic futures. So as we focus on the negative, what are we maybe missing in our discussions in terms of what’s going right? With all of the focus on the possibility of methane bombs in the Arctic or the extinction crisis, what are the reasons that you find for hope right now? I know “hope” can be a loaded term, but I think a lot of our listeners would appreciate some positive news, because that can be really empowering for people.

Zeke
So I think there are a lot of reasons to be hopeful, and much more in the last few years than even a few years ago. I think some people are worried about talking about the hopeful things too much because they think it’ll distract us from the importance of climate action. I feel like that’s a problematic framing. The need for limiting warming to below two degrees is not predicated on a counterfactual scenario of five degrees warming, right? If we’re on track for three degrees instead of five degrees, it doesn’t lessen the need to get to two; there’s a reason we chose that as our target. But what makes me hopeful is a couple of things. One big one is the degree of technological progress we’ve seen, and the degree of success we’ve seen in making clean energy cheap. The prices of batteries, of solar panels, of wind turbines (both onshore and offshore) have fallen much faster than anyone even predicted five, ten years ago. In fact as a great example, all of these integrated assessment models that are used to create future emission scenarios that I was talking about earlier (that are going to be used in the next IPCC report), were created around 2014, 2015, 2016. So their price in those models for solar panels in the year 2050 is higher than the price of solar panels in most countries today. We’ve seen such a degree of technological advancement that it’s really gone outside of what our models predicted. That’s why we’re now on track for a current policy scenario that’s very much in the low end of the sort of baseline scenarios in those models. The fact that China is willing to commit to a 2060 goal is almost entirely, in my view, because we see a pathway from where we are today to get there that is not extremely costly because we have a lot of these alternatives with help. We don’t have all of them; there’s certainly some sectors of the economy like industrial heat or aviation or agriculture that are a lot harder to decarbonize, and we need a lot more innovation there. Even in energy and electricity, you can’t just power a country by wind and solar easily; there’s other parts of the system that need improvement. But we can get a long way with the technologies we have today, and the fact that they’ve gotten so cheap gives me a lot of hope. That’s really what sort of helped bend down some of these future emission curves.

The other thing that gives me hope is that there just seems to be a lot more political will to make meaningful commitments on climate change now than there was a decade ago. The Paris Agreement was a great start, but particularly this year with China, Japan, Korea, the EU, all of these big emitters committing to reduce their emissions to zero by mid-century, we’re sort of at tipping point (so to speak) in climate action. If we see the US joining that effort under a new Biden administration, we’ll have more than half of global emissions (well more than half of global emissions today) committed to getting to net zero by mid-century, and that would really be game changing for the climate. We certainly have a long way to go still and words on paper are not worth that much until they’re turned into actual policies on the ground, but things are moving in the right direction in many ways even if they’re not quite as fast as we’d want. We just need to keep pushing in that direction. We’ve taken a lot of the worst case outcomes off the table, even if we’re not quite on track for the best case outcomes yet today.

[music]

Justin Schell
For this episode’s Data Story, we turn to Dr. Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, who talked about not only the kinds of data she works with in studying climate change, but also the effects it has on the world her daughter will grow up in.

Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie
My name is Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, and I’m a visiting assistant professor in environmental studies at Colby College. I studied the timing of leaf out and flowering. As temperatures warm, leaf-out and flowering advance earlier and earlier in the spring. These are some of the most visible signs of the ecological impacts of climate change. To get really long term records, my research depends on journals and diaries of old naturalists like Henry David Thoreau. Of course, when Thoreau recorded flowering dates he didn’t see it as a fingerprint of climate change, but his observations allow us to calculate how much climate change has shifted the environments that we think we know. Humans have been marking time by seasonal events for a long, long time; think Stonehenge and the solstice. And my research often feels like an extension of this cultural history — an effort to understand our place in time in the universe. The differences my observations reflect my own species actions. The work that I do now (my research, teaching, and advocacy) will determine when my daughters see flowers bloom, and what their seasons will look like in the future.

Justin
We’d love to hear your data story. You can leave us a voicemail by calling 586–930–5286, or record yourself and email it to us at OurWarmRegards@gmail.com.

Ramesh
Over the past few weeks, as the first batches of COVID vaccinations have been administered in the US, there is almost a nightly report on the news where a frontline healthcare worker talks about how getting the vaccination provides them with a sense of hope.

This got me thinking about the parallels with climate change and the nature of hope when facing down a seemingly impossible challenge. It also got me thinking about the idea that in the case of COVID-19, science can deliver hope right into the bloodstream.

In my Conservation Biology class, I often find myself having to give my students a similar shot of hope — if you will. In the class we examine a lot of ways in which human activities are impacting the planet — from biodiversity loss, to deforestation, to overfishing, to the negative impacts of climate change on marginalized communities. After having taught this class a number of times, the students follow a predictable arc during the semester, and at some point they fall into a bit of an emotional valley, that is often verbalized to me in a rather matter-of-fact way: “Humans suck!” As the students learn about these global changes, they feel like there are no ways to fix these big problems, someone always gets the short end of the stick, and that these problems are just too big to tackle. They feel hopeless. To help them climb out of this emotional valley, I bring in local environmental leaders from the Lincoln area who are making a difference in their communities. For example, my friend Tim Rinne started an urban agriculture project called the Hawley Hamlet. Tim and his dedicated neighbors have converted their lawns to garden space (about 65 yards in total) and they grow thousands of pounds of fruits and vegetables to feed their families and friends. I also have my students specifically collect news articles that give them hope. They collect all sorts of articles ranging from stories about waste reduction by the Philadelphia Eagles, to new technologies that help capture CO2 from the atmosphere, to financial firms accounting for climate change in their investments. More importantly, they also have to explain why the articles give them hope. I even had a student remark that seeing the collection build up through the semester gave him an even greater sense of hope.

Although my students have been able to find these moments of hope, they have to wade through a seemingly endless stream of awful news stories that make pretty dark predictions about the world in the near future. It’s tough to find that hope. That’s not just true for my students; it’s true for me too. It seems that every few months there’s an article that comes across my Twitter or Facebook feed that is predicting that we only have “seven years left”. These pieces put me in the same emotional valley that I work to help my students climb out of.

However as I was writing this for the podcast, I realized how much of my own sense of hopelessness is shaped by the broad narrative in the media about climate change: how the American media narrative focuses a lot on climate anxiety, and much less so on action to fight climate change. But I also realized that being a part of this podcast is fundamentally an act of hope; it’s an attempt to push back against these stories of despair. To be honest, if I truly thought it was hopeless I don’t know if I would spend that time making a podcast. I’d probably be checking things off of a list of places to see and things to eat. Sharing the science of climate change, sharing stories and conversations from those who are impacted by climate change, and talking about how people are using data about climate change to improve things on the ground — these are all fundamentally a manifestation of my own hope that we can create a more equitable climate future for all of us.

One piece that I came across in January of this year that gave me hope with each line that I read, was an article written by our second guest, Diego Arguedas Ortiz — a climate communicator who has written for such news outlets like the BBC and Univision. The piece, “Is it wrong to be hopeful about climate change?”, was published as part of a BBC series on climate emotions. Diego’s piece was an insightful exploration of how collective, action-driven, responsive hope is a deeply social phenomenon, and that the uncertainty about our future can in fact be seen as an opportunity for hope.

[music]

Jacquelyn
Thank you so much for coming on the show, Diego. One of the reasons Ramesh and I were so excited to talk with you is that so much of the recent media coverage on climate change tends to focus either on really negative news or catastrophic events or doom-and-gloom predictions of the future, and yet a lot of your work recently has focused on the idea of hope. So how did that come to be?

Diego
Thanks, Jacquelyn and Ramesh for the invitation. It was more of a good coincidence. I got an invitation from a BBC editor to write about a climate and emotion series they were running, and she offered several topics to me. I was a bit reluctant to engage in hope because I was very unhopeful, perhaps, myself. I was very dubious about the case for hope on climate change. Even if I wanted to, do we believe in full that it was necessary? I didn’t see it. But eventually she convinced me and I just started reading and asking people, and it has been something that fascinated me ever since. It’s such a deep topic to go through because it’s so relevant.

Jacquelyn
The piece that you wrote in early 2020 for the BBC remains my favorite piece about climate change this year, and that’s it grapples so well with a lot of these very messy and personal responses to the climate crisis. And one of the things that really struck me is that the word hope or just the idea of hope seems to mean a lot of different things to different people. Now I wonder, do you think that might be holding us back from effectively harnessing the idea of hope to promote action on climate change? Or do you think it’s a good thing, that this one word can have so many different definitions for different people?

Diego
Hmm, that’s an interesting question. It’s definitely tricky that hope means different things to different people. And it means for instance, for some people, things will be fine. I heard other people just describe it as fake optimism or more silly optimism, whereas for others it just means action. And I think it will be really useful to just move away from the definition of hope based only on things will be fine, like this messiah concept we have in Western society (things would just be fine because Elon Musk is going to come and save us) and then just engage more on what I feel is the more action-based definition of hope, and then hope as something you cannot achieve unless you’re acting yourself. I think at some point, Katharine Hayhoe was being asked so often, “What gives you hope?”, in her talks that then she started asking, “What brings hope to people?” And there was this big chunk of people just saying, “youth activists,” and generally like, “people acting on climate change”. But the issue is if you just base your hope on someone else and it’s something that many people have made the case about, then it is a bit unfair. It’s a bit unfair because there’s someone else working on this action and having this emotional burden. We’re basically outsourcing hope to someone else, so we’re just waiting on the good news to give us hope or the science or the technology. It’s frail, whereas if you build hope on your values and the things you know you can do (and especially on this collective aggregation of individual hopes into a collective one), then I think it’s a better place to start with.

Jacquelyn
I like that a lot for two reasons. First, I like the idea of turning that question around and asking: what do we need to do to give our communities hope, so that they feel like their actions will make a difference? And I also really like that the kind of hope that you’re talking about involves a sense of moral duty to act on climate; we can’t just keep assuming that someone else is going to fix this for us. We have to show up, whether that’s through activism or our own personal actions, or just getting out there and talking about climate change.

Diego
I think this is why many people are, I think, rightfully skeptical about hope, because hope then gets thrown around as (in a way) a way to make people more passive. If you think things are just going to be fine, then there’s no need to engage in it.

Ramesh
So in your BBC piece, you also talked about hope being a deeply social phenomenon and that responsive hope specifically is key to tackling big problems like climate change. Do you still think that type of hope is key?

Diego
Yeah. I came to this idea through the work of Victoria McGeer, and she argues that you need like this social scaffolding just to just work on anything in your life. You can have this stubborn hope that you (yes, you, with your actions and you with your power) can change the day, and then I think she calls it “stubborn hope” or something. Then something she calls more silly, silly hope or silly optimism, which is this idea like things will be fine. And then somewhere in the middle, there’s this sweet spot in between. Yes, you need to do your stuff, but then it’s impossible to do it alone. There’s literally no person in the world that can solve this. So if you don’t build collectively — even if you don’t make the responsive hope, as she calls it — then it will be really tricky. At some point you’ll feel I am not enough.

Jacquelyn
So what about the folks that have given up hope — the so-called “doomers?” These are the people who don’t believe there’s anything that we can do. Not only have they lost hope, but they seem to feel the need to kind of convince other people that there’s nothing we can do. Have you encountered this kind of emotional response in your work? And if so, what have those conversations been like?

Diego
Yeah, I think that doom and gloom is very real. I know a relatively high ranking UN organization official who was arguing against action on flights, for instance, because he felt it was a lost cause. I think it’s a way of self-denial; you just feel overwhelmed by the scale of it. So I think it’s just a sort of emotional response akin to denial. I think the way to deal with this, I think it’s similar to the way you deal with other sorts of emotional responses (such as denial, which is in an emotional way as well). There’s very little evidence that when you are in this stage of denial, more facts and data will help. You just need to find another emotional door to this person’s mind so you can talk a similar language, because basically the mind is closing in to external influence and saying, ”This is all threatening to me,” and because it is, “I would just not engage.” And so the way I see it and the way I’ve been trying to focus my work recently is science and data is the necessary foundation of everything and I think we all agree on that, but it’s never enough. It’s never enough because fear is such a powerful emotional response that you need equally powerful emotional actions or tools to respond to it.

Ramesh
So Diego, do you find yourself in these conversations trying to convince doomers that there is hope around fighting climate change?

Diego
I think I do because I’m also stubborn, so I think I find myself ineffectively arguing the case, I guess, for “This is not lost.” But I think I’m trying, because my own emotional response is this is something that feels a bit threatening to me as a climate communicator that someone is not engaging in this. So I guess my initial response is usually, especially people who have a background climate change, this is not entirely lost cause and can get more tourists and just I gave them like the full versus. But I think once my head goes down a bit, I try to see a different way. We’re trying to do something in Costa Rica which is called climate conversations, and it’s a methodology that we were trying to develop to make it easier to talk about climate change. It is a model that started in the UK. Basically you try to bring people together and then you start by talking about what emotions you get from climate change and how it makes you feel, and ideally you bring your group group together and talk about it. We’re trying more to frame the conversation in this way, hoping that it will bring a more positive effect moving forward.

Ramesh
Diego, you’re based out of Costa Rica and you’ve published internationally. How do you think the American conversation about climate change is different from other parts of the world where you’ve engaged in these climate conversations?

Diego
I think the American conversation is entirely distorted, maybe similar to Australia and Norway, perhaps where the presence of fossil fuel interests has been so massive throughout the years and so pervasive as well, that it’s left a mark that is really hard now to erase. I mean, the fact that still you have a Congress that will not support climate action just because, it’s very different to most other countries. And even more than that, the fact that polls still show a decent chunk of the population disbelieving climate science; that is very different. So the conversation in the US is very different as to what you would have elsewhere. I think a big issue with this is the cultural dominance the US has over the world means that your climate conversation (which is distorted) distorts the rest of the worlds in a way, because it makes it feel that the rest of the world is as divided as the US, which I think is not the case. I think most of the world (and polls show it) overwhelmingly support climate action, but because most of the global media is based in the US and most of the global scholars come from the US it seems less hopeful.

Ramesh
Do you think that the media should be reporting on climate change differently? And if so, how should they do it?

Diego
This is weird because I’m going to I guess point a finger at myself as well, but I think one of the biggest issues we have as climate reporters is that we tell a fragmented story in the sense that we report individually or independently on the impacts and the solutions or things you can do. So you have a whole school of X solutions focused journalism, which is doing really cool stuff on what are people doing nowadays to change and make the world better, and you have a very interesting sort of way of journalism exploring the implications of drought in Southeast Asia and in cyclones and hurricanes in the Caribbean. But then I think there’s not enough journalism on climate change that connects what we’re seeing right now with what people can do. I think that is in part due to the fact that it is really not clear what is the best course to do as a person and as a community. I mean, it’s such a messy problem that it’s hard to point in the right direction and lead the way if you want and I think journalism in this way is just a reflection of society. Society doesn’t really know what the best course of action is. Yes, we know we have to get to decarbonized economy as soon as possible and make it resilient and just go from fossil fuels, but where to start, it’s quite tricky. And especially if you have countries where you have interests that will be impacted by this. So let me give you the case of Costa Rica where we have a fairly clean and renewable electricity grid; there at 98% as being for the best ten years or so. But then the transport sector — it’s so tricky to make changes that would actually decarbonize it and move it towards hopefully non-motorized, but with an ideally clean engine system that people don’t really know where to start. So if you’re a reporter and you’re covering the impact of climate change in Costa Rica and then you you’re covering say the impact of drought in the Pacific, or if you’re covering the impact of how climate change is making people who live in the north and central America countries migrate to the US or elsewhere, if you finish that story which could be a fantastic story on the impacts of climate change in Guatemala or Costa Rica or elsewhere and you read through it, it’s very easy to feel gloomy, and that’s just the bad part of the story. I am definitely not arguing for rosy-colored journalism. I hate rosy journalism, and I think it’s generally bad journalism, but we need to find a balance as journalism and also society of how do we write in a way that or do journalism in a way that gives people more agency over what they are reading and watching and listening to.

[music]

Jacquelyn
There has been a growing number of articles in recent years that focus on climate grief or anxiety, but I’ve heard some people make the argument that this kind of response is really just affluent white people in the global North that are waking up to a reality that marginalized communities have known for decades. Do you think this is a fair criticism? And I’d also like to hear more about what the climate conversation is like in other parts of the world?

Diego
Hmm I’ve heard the arguments and I think that there is definitely something there. It’s really tricky to discuss this, to differentiated impacts. And I think the caveat here is that I’m also, I guess, somehow part of this well-educated Costa Rican, speaks English and studied abroad. I’m not sure whether anxiety or gloom is what you would get from a farmer that didn’t get crops for a couple of years. I definitely believe that people in the front lines have been getting this for many years, in a bigger and broader sense than people living in the big cities of the world or in San Jose, the capital where I live. I have never experienced a drought affecting my crops. I have never seen my family’s home get flooded. In a way, this climate anxiety is a bit of a luxury, this sense of what could happen now? That doesn’t mean it’s not real. These are valid concerns for lots of people, but the question is whether these concerns rightly placed in the global agenda of emotions is warranted. And I think we go again to the cultural dominance of English-speaking media around the world; the fact that if I write the same piece and hope in Spanish, it will not get one-tenth of the pickup that I did because I wrote an English. And then the culture and emotional landscape of these English-speaking countries and the English-speaking elites around the world also influence the conversation you have in climate change. I don’t know if you have ever read a peer-reviewed paper in Spanish? I know I have only a couple, I mean recently. Usually I just go to English. So that’s one, and then the other also in media. The biggest media in the world in Spanish might be El Pais from Spain, and you don’t get that much from Pais in non-Spanish-speaking countries. And the same goes also by these conversations. I mean, there’s a handful of outlets trying to cover effectively climate change in Spanish. But then that’s already a niche, a small niche. And if you go into a climate emotions niche in Spanish-speaking media on climate change, then it’s like *peep*, one person writing every six months on it. It becomes harder to talk about this because then also as a reporter on climate change, like me, you have more incentives to write in English than to write in Spanish.

Ramesh
I’m curious to know: as a journalist, how closely do you follow the data and the projections around climate change? And if you do, is the science a source of hope or despair for you? Or is it somewhere in between?

Diego
I think a fair bit and I definitely need like a translator sort of person that would get the models and then explain to me what they mean. I mean, I’m not well versed enough in this to just break down the models. But I think what you get from the models, from the science is the general trajectory of possibilities. The models give you politics of the probable, and then with your work and especially with this work and emotions, so you go to the politics of the possible. Just to give an example, I was working in a newsroom the day the 1.5° report came out, which was a bit more than two years ago (was October 2018, I think?). I recall clearly the flurry of headlines and tweets and everyone talking about the report, then I just gave it like a quick look at the summary for policymakers. And that report, I think that was the last day that I can recall, or the most recent date that I felt like deep paralyzing fear. It was very breathtaking, that report, and I think especially the global coverage it got because it feels so real. There are some moments and I think you guys have the same reaction where you just put up your emotional barriers and then you try to filter out some of the science in a way in a self-defense mechanism, because if you just keep reading every single paper comes out about prediction models, I think it will just beat you down. So there’s a mix of both. It’s a mix. It guides you in my digital trajectory of what I think is happening. And then I acknowledged them as an impossible-to-deny reality of “this is what’s happening”. This is what’s likely to happen. But then there’s also, “Okay, don’t engage that much in something that you don’t have control over right now.” Try to move your energy somewhere else.

Jacquelyn
One of the recurring themes that’s come up in our conversations this season is uncertainty and how we don’t know exactly what the future will look like, but we can say that some futures are more or less likely. How do you balance conveying the urgency of climate change with the uncertainty of all the different potential outcomes? I’m curious about this especially because uncertainty tends to evoke really different emotions in people, from anxiety to hope. How do you deal with that kind of complexity in your teaching and writing?

Diego
I think communicating uncertainty is possibly the most difficult of communication jobs because just communicating risk and risk probabilities and how this might impact any one of us is just . . . I think I don’t have a clear response for this because I don’t even know how to deal with it myself. I think the way I try to deal with this is just by this like difference that I describe which the problem on the possible. So we know what’s probable and I guess that is very clear, sadly, but even the probable like leaves many open possibilities of things that are less likely; I can go forward. I think a way I’ve seen recently to explore it is by scenario-making. It’s not necessarily journalism; it’s more like facilitation. It’s just like bringing people on board on a group workshop, can explore what unlikely scenarios can happen. And then in that way, if you can make policies or plans that would fit most scenarios (even the good, the bad likely or unlikely), then I think is a decent enough way to manage the anxiety. The trick is how you transform that into a journalism piece, which once again goes back to one of the issues of journalism is we cannot convey the complexity that you would like to in a novel, for instance, or in a report in one or two or three pieces, even in a special. One way to do it will be to focus. I mean, I guess what goes to the core of what I described with novels is to go to stories. If you’re reading, for instance, the Parable of the Sower, Butler, or New York 2140, they would convey uncertainty in ways very different. I mean, they are very unlikely worlds on very unlikely trajectories. So maybe stories are the way to show what could happen or what can happen in the future. Something journalists would need to change as well is how it focuses on local stories. And it’s also an issue right now because yes, you see subscriptions on the New York Times and Washington Post and big media outlets growing, but there’s a big issue with local outlets everywhere in the world. The issue is those are the outlets that cover the big stories on climate change or the important stories and climate change. Stories that impact people, that people know, that community feel. One of the things I would love to change in the future is generally how do we make local journalism more interested and engaged on climate change, and how to make climate change and climate change journalism focus more on local topics.

Ramesh
Do you think a focus on local climate change journalism would lead to stories being told in a more authentic way, because they’re at a scale that is more tangible to the viewer or listener?

Diego
Possibly, and I think this is why you’ve seen the rise of newsletters. Because you cater to a more specific audience, and locally could be like locally in your social group? But then also this locally on a specific topic, focusing on something very specific the specific audience wants. And if you tried something similar with local stories, people will feel themselves seen and part of the solution. The biggest issues we have with climate solutions is that the people we, you should represent solving climate change are people that usually don’t look like the majority of us. They usually look like scientists (sorry, guys), diplomats, engineers. And the vast majority of people who are not any of this, they lived their lives wondering, “Where am I in the equation?” And if you have more local stories and you focus more on local people, then maybe you have other people that you definitely need; you need like new carpenters, you need like new bus drivers; you need new teachers being part of the solution along with, of course, the diplomats and the scientists and the engineers. It’s just opening up more of the scope of who are we solving climate change and who are responding to climate change.

Jacquelyn
I really appreciate your perspective, because I’ve never quite thought about how the American model of climate reporting has focused so much on the topic of belief or disbelief in climate change, but there’s this real hunger for stories about how we make change within our communities. I think that such a different way of talking about the climate crisis, and it’s much more empowering. And you’re right; we don’t see those kinds of stories out there.

Diego
That action-based conversation is precisely how I see and many other people see hope. As Greta said a couple of years ago, it’ s something you have to earn. There’s this really beautiful line in this book, Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit. She says something like, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you sit on the couch and hold; it’s an axe to just break down doors in an emergency.” And if you make a conversation fit for action, then what you’re getting to the end is hope.

Ramesh
Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell. Jo Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions.

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A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651

A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651