In July, I gave the most emotional talk I’ve ever given, and the one of which I’m most proud, based on my “Polar Thinking” blog post from earlier this year. It combines the personal and the professional, threaded together in a plea to see the world for its nuances and contradictions, its shades of grey, rather than with an over-simplified, black-and-white view.
Below is the transcript, followed by a couple of podcasts you might enjoy. But if you have a quiet 40 minutes to spare, you can watch the video of me giving the talk instead.
1. How climate sceptics are not all angry or selfish (or wrong)
The phone rang. Sitting at my desk in the University of Bristol, eight years ago, I picked up. “Hello – may I speak to Dr Edwards, please?”. “Speaking,” I replied. “This is Barry,” he said.
Damn. I knew I should have taken my phone number off the university public website after starting to comment about climate science online. Barry was a climate sceptic, what some would call a ‘denier’. He’d been challenging me that day on Twitter: about the validity of sea level rise predictions, the line to draw between climate science and policy, and the motivations of climate scientists. Was he going to start ranting at me? Maybe even threaten me? I’d heard of the toxic emails sent to colleagues in the US.
I suddenly felt a little vulnerable, even at the end of a phone line, my professional space intruded on. As a junior scientist, still on temporary contracts, I felt unprepared for this. Would I say something wrong that would end up splashed across the sceptic blogs, perhaps even sent to a sympathetic newspaper? I felt nervous, even a little shaky.
Barry sounded… mild-mannered. I pictured a well-meaning, if slightly awkward, uncle in a crumpled jacket. He was respectful, even deferential, and explained that he thought picking up the phone and just having a conversation would be better than continuing with a back-and-forth on Twitter. I think he said it would be nice to meet some time and talk some more, if I wanted to. That we probably had more in common on the science than I thought. That his interest, really, was in defending climate science against error and misuse. After we talked for a few minutes, I put down the phone and thought: “He sounds nice”.
Over the following years we did meet in person, several times, and struck up a bit of a friendship. We talked a little about our own lives, but mostly about the online climate ‘debate’, as it was called until recently. He had been a chemist once, and prodded me about claims he thought were not robust. Several times, I found he was right. I lightly teased him about his incredible verbosity, both online and in person: Barry makes his points in great detail. Online, that can sometimes feel overwhelming. In person, he just sounds like someone who cares about getting it right, like me.
Barry stuck up for me against sceptics that were genuinely aggressive, and stuck up for climate science when outside criticisms were unfounded. We’re not so much in touch anymore, perhaps having said most of what we wanted to say to each other, and there were times I did find his criticism or manner frustrating or unproductive.
But Barry was the first of many climate “contrarians” I met or talked with that engaged in civil dialogue, at least some of the time, and made some reasonable criticisms of my field. Another was Jonathan – a professor of physics, and the main person who now adds my new accomplishments to my Wikipedia page. Paul, another academic, who made fair criticisms about statistical analysis and thought exchanges like ours could extinguish climate scepticism. Josh, not his real name, the harsh cartoonist who has lampooned many of my colleagues, in person was sweet and gentle. He took a shine to me and drew a cartoon of me as a magical Tinkerbell, saving climate science.
And Sean, whose last name I do not know, whose dry humour on Twitter always made me smile. Recently, knowing I was ill, he suggested to his sister looking for a new craft project that she make something for me. More about that later.
These conversations showed me that climate sceptics are not always angry, or selfish. They’re also not always necessarily wrong, if you listen to the ones with thoughtful reflections or suggestions about the science, even if they sometimes word them rather strongly.
Even the sceptics that do start angry and wrong often cool down and listen, if you listen and acknowledge the position they are coming from. Each sceptic is different, each conversation, and each can surprise you.
2. How climate change is both human and natural
I do still have anonymous climate sceptics, often from overseas, replying to something I’ve said on Twitter with some variation on the idea that climate change is completely natural. Yes, sometimes they are angry, and they are definitely wrong. Occasionally I also hear people argue the opposite – that every change we see in our climate and weather is our fault.
But the truth is somewhere between the two, even if the balance does change over time. The natural influences acting on our climate are always changing. In the distant past, it was only these.
Our orbit around the sun is never fixed, unlike the clockwork models of our solar system. It slowly alternates between circular and elliptical, our axis tilted a little more or a little less, pointing towards one star or another. The North Star is only temporarily so. These subtle shifts occur over tens of thousands of years, affecting our seasons and how much of the sun’s energy falls on each part of the Earth at a particular time in year, acting as a quiet pacemaker for the planet stepping in and out of the great ice ages every hundred thousand years.
Even the sun itself is inconstant. Sunspots, those sooty fingerprints that appear on the sun’s surface with an eleven year cycle and also vary over much longer timescales, are the mark of a sun that is temporarily stronger. More energy means a warmer planet. Around 1640, the sunspots stopped – virtually absent for two generations. Europe, already cooled by volcanic eruptions such as Papua New Guinea’s Long Island that were dimming the sun, plunged more deeply into winters in those years. Two centuries later, the astronomers Annie and Edward Maunder looked back at the data and wrote about that strange absence, and the period now takes their name: the Maunder Minimum.
These puppeteers, the orbital and solar cycles, are still pulling on the strings of our planet, even if they mostly fade into the background now in comparison with the attention-seeking activities of humans. Volcanic eruptions, like the huge Mount Pinatubo in 1991, emit the gas sulphur dioxide, that combines with water in the atmosphere to make tiny droplets that hang in the air and reflect some of the sun’s rays away. Pinatubo temporarily reversed around 40% of global warming since the preindustrial era, but for only a matter of months.
Sunspots still come and go. Some of the warming in the first half of the 20th century was caused by an increase in the sun’s strength. A long, deep minimum in the 11 year solar sunspot cycle from 2007-2009 cooled the upper atmosphere and may have helped to cool our winters in Europe. Last month, there were signs we had begun to descend into the next solar minimum, and that it will also be long and deep.
And the tick tock, tick tock of the orbital cycles continues. But we have now prevented the next ice age we were due, with our unintended increase of the global thermostat.
Greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane are not inherently bad. Without the greenhouse effect protecting us, this would be a cold and different planet – around -19 degrees Celsius, instead of +15. The problem today is one of balance – too much of a good thing. Carbon dioxide has waxed and waned with the ice ages over at least the last 800,000 years. But the extra amount we have let slip into the air has taken us to a level probably not seen in 2 or 3 million years.
The molecules of CO2 absorb heat energy from the Earth, which makes them wriggle and flex more, until they let go of their parcel of energy in a random direction. That direction is often back down to Earth, which heats us a little more.
Strangely, our coal burning is having a cooling effect too, just not as strong as the warming. Burning coal releases sulphur dioxide – that same volcanic gas, forming particles that reflect the sun’s rays. But it’s not enough to offset its industrial neighbour, CO2 – it only compensates about 30% of the warming.
So climate change is both human and natural. And human influences on climate are both warming and cooling. But our best estimate for that balance right now is that all the warming since 1951 has been caused by humans.
3. Polar thinking
For this part of the talk, I read out my blog post “Polar Thinking“. Please read this, then come back for the rest of the talk.
4. The future will be both better and worse than we imagine
We are the storytelling ape. Storytelling is in our blood and bones. Why do we need stories? To imagine: what if. What if we did this, or that? What would we do, if we faced a monster – would we be brave, or hide in the dark? We test different scenarios, like dreams, both the fantastical and the mundane.
I often hear two stories about our future. One is not always obvious, not always told out loud: it is the story that our climate will always be the same. We plan our lives – our housing, our power, our jobs – as if the future will be just like today, only with a few more wrinkles. That the weather outdoors and the floods at our feet will be the same as when we were children, and the wildfires, and the wild Arctic sea ice that traps iron ships in the northern seas. That global warming will be remembered as a footnote, a cautionary tale, a temporary and inconvenient untruth.
The other story is that our society will always be the same. That nothing will be done about our emissions – the world will continue, business as usual. That global warming will be our end, and our fearful destiny, burning bright, a hothouse hell ignited by selfishness, and inertia, and greed and denial, that leads to our destruction.
The future will be neither of these. Our climate will change, more noticeably and perhaps more quickly than today. Our houses, power, cars, and industries will change, as they are already starting to. Our conversations will change. They already have.
This thermometer shows climate change by degree: global warming since the preindustrial era. We are at the first step: 1 degree Celsius. The future will not stay here. At the top of the thermometer is 4 degrees Celsius, or 5. This is the world of business as usual, in fact business-worse-than-usual, burning through fossil fuel reserves as if they were a box of matches.
But there is no longer such a thing as business as usual. We have put some climate policies in place, taking actions, making progress. This blue band shows the predicted warming in the year 2100 taking into account those policies – around 3.3 degrees of warming. And we also have pledges for what we intend to do, including those for the Paris Agreement. These would take us a little lower, to 3 degrees. You can watch how these predictions change, over the coming months and years.
The future, then, is already better than we imagined it would be, but still worse than we imagine it could be. And each new policy and pledge will bring the future further down this scale, towards the Paris Agreement targets of 2 and 1.5 degrees. There would still be serious consequences at this level of warming. But climate change is not something that is simply won or lost. It is an arc that we can choose to bend toward justice. We will all be both heroes and villains, and wake up the next day and be heroes again. We will create our story, word by word, deed by deed.
I will end with a poem by the author Nick Drake, which he wrote after he sailed the Arctic seas:
If you liked this, my colleague George Adamson talked about polarisation in a podcast on The Climate Culture War (from 20:00), and I discussed scientific uncertainty and talking to people with different views in the climate podcast No Planet B.