Op-ed: Being Alarmed Is Not the Same as Being an Alarmist

When the evidence clearly suggests that we’re heading toward a catastrophe, scientists shouldn’t hesitate to make their feelings known to the public. So, at what point should scientists begin to publicly worry about the environment?

Scientists are trained to report their findings in a disinterested manner. The aim is to be as objective as possible, and this means bracketing one’s feelings in favor of the facts.

But what happens when the evidence suggests that humanity is racing towards a global, irreversible disaster? What happens when the results of scientific inquiry clearly warrant activism in favor of a particular law or policy?

Once in a while, scientists do express their personal thoughts about the results of scientific research. For example, in 2012, a geophysics researcher from the University of San Diego, Brad Werner, gave a presentation at the large, annual American Geophysical Union conference. His talk was titled “Is Earth F**cked?,” and as he told a reporter for iO9 afterwards, the answer is “more or less.”

Two years later, after a group of scientists found “vast methane plumes escaping from the seafloor,” the glaciologist Jason Box echoed Werner’s pessimism, tweeting: “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f ’d.”

Rewriting Records

There’s good reason for scientists to be honest and open about the implications of their research. The environmental situation today really is dire.

According to Gavin Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, there’s a 99% probability that 2016 will become the hottest year on record, surpassing the previous record set by 2015, which itself surpassed the previous record set by 2014. In fact, the hottest 16 years have all occurred since 2000, with only a single exception (1998).

Even more, last June was the 14th consecutive month to set a temperature record. And in July, Kuwait experienced the highest temperature ever recorded in the Eastern hemisphere, with temperatures reaching 129.2 degrees (F). In nearby Iraq, the mercury peaked at 129.0 degrees. As Jason Samenow notes, “It’s also possible that [the] 129.2-degree reading matches the hottest ever reliably measured anywhere in the world” (italics added).

Meanwhile, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to climb at a meteoric rate. Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was 280 parts per million (ppm). But recent years have seen it surpass 400 ppm. Initially, this has occurred for only  part of the year because of the seasonal life cycles of plants, which remove atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Last year, though, the average concentration of carbon dioxide exceeded 400 ppm for the first time ever. And scientists are now saying that “carbon dioxide will never fall below 400 ppm this year, nor the next, nor the next.” In other words, no human alive today will ever again experience an atmosphere with less than 400 ppm. As the meteorologist Richard Betts puts it, “These numbers are … a reminder of the long-term effects we’re having on the system.”

Worrisome Weather

Along with record-breaking temperatures and changes to atmospheric chemistry, recent months have seen many extreme weather events. This is in part due to the 2015-2016 El Niño climate cycle, which has been “probably the most powerful in the last 100 years.”

But the more fundamental driver of extreme weather is climate change. Research shows that climate change will result in more severe floods, droughts, heat waves, and hurricanes. According to a study conducted by scientists at NASA, Cornell, and Columbia universities, we should expect “megadroughts” in the US lasting decades.

Another study predicts that certain regions could experience heat waves so scorching that “one would overheat even if they were naked in the shade, soaking wet and standing in front of a large fan.” Yet another report found that lightning strikes will increase by 50% this century.

Until recently, it was difficult for climatologists to link particular instances of extreme weather with human-caused changes to the climate. Asking whether climate change caused event X is like asking whether smoking caused Jack’s lung cancer. A doctor can explain that Jack-the-smoker is statistically more likely to get cancer than Jack-the-nonsmoker. However, a direct link is indiscernible.

But this situation is changing, as a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences affirms. Scientists are increasingly able to connect climate change with particular instances of extreme weather. And the results are worrisome.

For example, a study from last year links climate change to the 2007-2010 Syrian drought. This record-breaking event fueled the Syrian civil war by instigating a large migration of farmers into Syria’s urban centers. Furthermore, this conflict gave rise to terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate). In other words, one can trace an unbroken series of causes from climate change to the Syrian civil war to terrorism.

Panicking in Public

Climate change is a clear and present danger. Scientists don’t debate about whether it’s occurring. Nor do they disagree that its consequences will be global, catastrophic, and irreversible. According to the World Bank, “the global community is not prepared for a swift increase in climate change-related natural disasters — such as floods and droughts — which will put 1.3 billion people at risk by 2050.”

Given the high stakes and the well-established science, scientists should be waving their arms and shouting, “The situation is urgent! We must act now! The future of civilization depends upon it!” In the process, they should take care to distinguish between the distinct attitudes of “being alarmed” and “being an alarmist,” which many pundits, politicians, and journalists often conflate. The first occurs when one responds proportionally to the best available evidence. The second is what happens when one’s fear and anxiety go beyond the evidence.

Being alarmed is the appropriate response to an alarming situation, and the situation today really is alarming.

The ongoing catastrophe of climate change is not out of our control. But if we don’t act soon, Werner could be right that Earth is, well, in bad shape.

Note from FLI: Among our objectives is to inspire discussion and a sharing of ideas. As such, we post op-eds that we believe will help spur discussion within our community. Op-eds do not necessarily represent FLI’s opinions or views.