Why the Scientists Failed
(Adapted from The Climate Pandemic: How Climate Disruption Threatens Human Survival)

Even though the mainstream media have failed to adequately cover climate disruption, they are not entirely culpable. After all, the media can only cover what climate scientists are willing to communicate. This section details how scientists—climate scientists as well as others who should have spoken out—have failed in that communication.

It’s important to recognize that climate scientists face a massively daunting task as they seek to understand the intricate, ever-changing global climate, with its multitude of diverse environments.

The Climate Pandemic cover

In their indefatigable efforts, some scientists embark on ocean voyages aboard instrument-laden research vessels.[1] Others analyze cores from probes drilled thousands of meters into the Antarctic ice sheets.[2] Still others feed masses of such data into supercomputers to construct intricate mathematical models of Earth’s climate.[3]

These scientific pioneers are meticulous in their research, and their findings are as complete and accurate as they can make them.

We quite properly trust these scientists. One survey found that 71% of the respondents “strongly” or “somewhat” trusted climate scientists as a source of information.[4]

However, trust in climate scientists depends heavily on political affiliation. A Pew Research Center survey found that only 15% of conservative Republicans trust climate scientists to “give full and accurate information about the causes of climate change.” More trusting were moderate/liberal Republicans (32%), moderate/conservative Democrats (45%), and liberal Democrats (70%).[5]

Although climate scientists are trustworthy, they do have flaws. Those flaws have played a central role in their ultimate failure to do their full measure of effort in warning society about climate disruption. Some of these flaws arise from the fundamental nature of science; others arise from scientists’ personal tendencies.

They are never certain

The nature of science dictates that scientists must always be tentative. Their discoveries may seem definitive in media reports, but a new scientific paper can force scientists to revise or even abandon a conclusion. Such tentativeness is a natural and valuable part of the scientific process. It serves scientists well in the laboratory or the scientific meeting. However, the lay public may misinterpret it as ignorance or evasiveness.

Debating scientific findings is a necessary part of scientific advance, but scientists tend not to recognize that their internal debates are now public, thanks to the Internet. Wrote environmental journalist Andrew Revkin:

Conflicting findings can make news coverage veer from one extreme to another, resulting in a kind of journalistic whiplash for the public. . . . Scientists see persistent disputes as the normal stuttering journey toward improved understanding of how the world works. But many fear that the herky-jerky trajectory is distracting the public from the undisputed basics and blocking change.[6]

Scientists also don’t know what they don’t know, which presents another inherent obstacle to communication.

As climate disruption historian Spencer Weart puts it: “In an area as difficult as climate science, where all is complex and befogged, it is hard to see what one is not prepared to look for.”[7]

A few examples of such scientific fog:

As you read this book, you’ll see the many times that new scientific discoveries render previous understanding of a climate process invalid or incomplete. Nevertheless, the extreme rigor of science still makes it the most reliable source of human knowledge.

Of course, this book relies heavily on scientific papers whose findings are by nature tentative. So, some findings may be proved wrong and others may require revision. However, like a Pointillist painting in which some elements change but the overall image persists, these findings form an unequivocal, tragic picture of our potential extinction.

Scientists have a “low-dimensional” view in a “high-dimensional” world

Scientists spend most of their professional lives in a relatively narrow “low-dimensional” realm of laboratory, seminar room, and field station. They lead a relatively insular professional life. They spend the vast majority of their time interacting with other scientists—collaborating, mentoring, teaching, and supervising. They really need little contact with laypeople to advance in their careers—not even when they are applying for grants, doing experiments, publishing scientific papers, and giving scientific talks.

Their professional focus is also low-dimensional. For example, in their field studies, they aim to gather narrowly defined data on specific phenomena—whether it be climate effects on trees or the melting of the Greenland ice sheet.

In the laboratory, scientists design narrowly defined experiments that try to hold constant all elements of a system except one—like evolving a recipe for perfect bread by varying only one ingredient at a time. Even computer modelers, who construct their models using a multitude of inputs, cannot possibly encompass the broader complexity of the natural environment, or of the complex social, political, and economic factors that affect it.

The broader social, economic, and/or political implications of their research seldom penetrate this shell. Their narrow environment and experience limits their ability to engage the far more complex “high-dimensional” world of politics, media, and the public arena.

Compare this insular lifestyle with that of doctors, lawyers, and politicians. Their professional advancement depends on their ability to communicate with laypeople and to grapple with the moral and political dimensions of their actions. Doctors must explain their diagnoses; lawyers must explain the law to clients and juries; and politicians must persuade voters.

Scientists’ vision is also limited by their instruments. For example, the lack of ground-based instruments means that researchers can’t precisely measure CO2 emissions in the Arctic during the winter. The region is too remote to do detailed ground measurements in the frigid, dark winter months. This lack of winter measurements is critical because scientists need to understand how much soils warmed by global heating are emitting CO2.[18] [19]

Similarly, scientists lack enough current-tracking ocean markers to fully chart the critical Atlantic Ocean “conveyor belt” called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). This vital current warms North America and Western Europe and influences African and Indian monsoons and hurricanes. Mapping the ocean’s current is important because scientists believe that the Atlantic circulation will weaken due to global heating.

They neglect the human factor

Climate scientists’ largely technical approach to their field recalls the saying, “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” To the environmental scientists who have defined the field, climate disruption looks like a purely environmental problem. But climate disruption is a human problem since it has ultimately arisen from human needs.

Indeed, sociologists have charged that environmental scientists have neglected the human element in understanding and avoiding climate disruption. Wrote sociologists Riley Dunlap and Robert Brulle: “From the very beginning of the climate change research effort, the social sciences have been and continue to be marginalized. Consequently, from a natural science perspective, human activities remain in their black box, largely inaccessible.”[20] They pointed out that in a key 2001 report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate disruption was framed as an environmental problem without reference to its social contexts. And only 3% of scientific papers dealing with climate disruption have come from sociologists, they noted.

When natural scientists do address the human dimensions of climate disruption, they mistakenly emphasize “the role of individuals in generating carbon emissions—who are thus held responsible for reducing them,” wrote Dunlap and Brulle. “The stress on individual behavior and change thus leaves the institutions that structure everyday life and individual practices unexamined.” This focus “obscures the extent to which governments sustain unsustainable economic institutions and ways of life, and the extent to which they have a hand in structuring options and possibilities.”

Consequently, they wrote, “efforts to address climate change . . . are unlikely to succeed without greater knowledge of human behavior and societal dynamics supplied by social science.”

The effects of rising temperatures represent a prime example of the social impacts of climate disruption. Wrote economists Tamma Carleton and Solomon Hsiang:

Temperature . . . exerts remarkable influence over human systems at many social scales . . . heat induces mortality, has lasting impact on fetuses and infants, and incites aggression and violence while lowering human productivity.[21]

Failure to understand the human side of climate disruption means that we will likely fail to forge a path to solutions. After all, human nature underlies culture, politics, and economics—all of which must be taken into account in any solutions.

They are occupational optimists

Imagine you are trying to build a machine, and it fails miserably time after time. You’re in deep trouble because you’ve already claimed that it will work to those who funded your machine.

Each day you tweak and test and rethink a new design; and each day the machine dishearteningly fails again. Finally, after years, you get the machine to function! But when you submit an article on your success, the publisher enlists anonymous critics—perhaps your rivals—to criticize the design, forcing you to tweak it again and again. Finally, you are allowed to unveil it to the world, but you know that at any moment a rival may invent a new, improved version that will render yours obsolete.

Welcome to the world of scientists, who toil in a profession in which they fail at the vast majority of experiments they try. In a Scientific American article, a young biologist, Maryam Zaringhalam, wrote frankly that:

Scientists seldom speak of false starts. While we all have stories about failure, the scientific narrative is dominated by bold questions that begat experimental triumphs. . . . If failure is mentioned, it is only in the past tense, listed as a steppingstone to discovery. . . . But mediocre failures—the mistakes and errors that lead to nothing—have no place. . . . Nearly everything that happens in the lab will never make it to print.[22]

To win funding in the first place, scientists must project a determined optimism in their research proposals. They must project a confidence in inevitable success. Almost certainly, no scientist has ever submitted a research proposal declaring, in essence: “We’ll give it our best shot, but we suspect we won’t find anything.”

Scientists plunge ahead driven by dedication, passion, and optimism. However, this mask of optimism sometimes slips, as climate scientists expressed on the website “Is This How You Feel?” The website contains their letters revealing how they feel about the prospect of climate disruption. A poignant example came from climatologist David Griggs, who wrote

“How do I feel about climate change?

They self-censor

Climate scientists historically tended to mute their public voices and downplay the severity of climate disruption. Their self-censorship stemmed from their innate scientific reserve and the denunciations—even persecution—by de-nihilists, who reject climate science. As climatologist Kevin Anderson wrote in 2015:

In several important respects, the modeling community is self-censoring its research to conform to the dominant political and economic paradigm. . . . We simply are not prepared to accept the revolutionary implications of our own findings. . . . And even when we do, we are reluctant to voice such thoughts openly. Instead, my long-standing engagement with many scientific colleagues leaves me in no doubt that whilst they work diligently, often against a backdrop of organised scepticism, many are ultimately choosing to censor their own research.[24]

Terming such timidity “scientific reticence,” climatologist James Hansen wrote in 2016 that “I believe, the affliction is widespread and severe. Unless recognized, it may severely diminish our chances of averting dangerous climate change.”[25]

Hansen cited cases in which scientists who reviewed his papers before publication objected to his use of the word “dangerous” to describe the consequences of global heating. The reviewers suggested that the word be enclosed in parentheses, or be changed to “potentially dangerous,” or rephrased as “could be dangerous.”

“There is a very important issue at play here,” wrote Hansen. “The relevant scientific community, in our opinion, has been exercising self-censorship in its warning to the public about the danger of human-made climate change.”

Hansen, even amid attacks by de-nihilists, is by no means reticent himself. Besides his climate research, he has played a seminal role in bringing public attention to the reality and dangers of climate disruption—most notably in 1988 testimony to a US Senate Committee. In that testimony he bluntly warned that the Earth is warming; that the warming is due to the greenhouse effect; and it will affect summer heat waves.[26] More recently, his program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions continues to promote public awareness of climate disruption and to connect climate science to policy.[27]

Climate scientists, because of their self-censorship, have allowed de-nihilism to seep into the science, concluded psychologists who analyzed the phenomenon:

In response to constant, and sometimes toxic, public challenges, scientists have over-emphasized scientific uncertainty, and have inadvertently allowed contrarian claims to affect how they themselves speak, and perhaps even think, about their own research. . . . This “seepage” has arguably contributed to a widespread tendency to understate the severity of the climate problem.[28]

Because of their perceived need to speak in a single voice, scientists have underestimated the pace of climate change, asserted Naomi Oreskes, Michael Oppenheimer, and Dale Jamieson. They dubbed the phenomenon “univocality,” writing:

Many scientists worry that if disagreement is publicly aired, government officials will conflate differences of opinion with ignorance and use this as justification for inaction. Others worry that even if policymakers want to act, they will find it difficult to do so if scientists fail to send an unambiguous message.[29]

The authors also wrote that scientists worry that, if they overestimate a threat, they will lose credibility; but there will be little, if any, impact on their reputation if they underestimate the threat:

In climate science, this anxiety is reinforced by the drumbeat of climate denial, in which scientists are accused of being “alarmists” who “exaggerate the threat.” In this context, scientists may go the extra mile to disprove the stereotype by downplaying known risks and denying critics the opportunity to label them as alarmists.

What’s more, wrote the authors, scientists are reluctant to make any estimates when data are internally contradictory. These tendencies can lead scientists to “minimalist conclusions that are weak or incomplete.”

“Erring on the side of least drama” is how Oreskes and colleagues characterize scientists’ inclination to downplay dramatic, alarming, or upsetting results, such as Arctic ozone depletion and the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet. The melting of the ice sheet would constitute a major catastrophe, raising sea levels many feet.[30]

And as climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe succinctly said of her peers, “If they say something’s bad, you know it’s probably a lot worse than they said.”[31]

Even amid their self-censorship, though, climate scientists have expressed an overwhelming and carefully documented consensus on the reality of human-caused climate disruption and global heating.[32] Essentially all climate scientists accept the scientific certainty of human-caused climate disruption. The catch is that only about one in every five Americans know how strong that consensus is.[33] It is just as likely that Americans don’t know about the letter signed by 31 of the world’s scientific societies reaffirming the reality of climate disruption.[34]

In their self-censorship, scientists tended to delude themselves that they have done their full duty to society by publishing their findings in scientific journals. However, they failed to understand that facts don’t communicate themselves; that they require dissemination, explanation, and aggressive advocacy.

While this self-censorship has waned amid the frightening reality of growing climate-related catastrophes, it rendered scientists inadequate sources of information on the dangers of climate disruption.

They build imperfect, but useful, climate models

In a large windowless room in Greenbelt, Maryland, sits a phalanx of black, monolithic computer cabinets. Rows of furiously blinking indicator lights reflect the pace of computation going on within their 129,000 processors. This is the Discover supercomputing cluster at NASA’s Center for Climate Simulation.[35] It is among a multitude of centers worldwide that enlist supercomputers to model the global climate.

Researchers first construct a climate model—an intricate network of equations—based on fundamental physical principles. Then, in an effort to predict the course of climate disruption, they their feed their models data on such phenomena as solar radiation; greenhouse gases; and aerosols emitted from fossil fuels, fires, and volcanoes.

The models then produce scenarios of possible future climates—including temperatures, precipitation, snow and ice cover, winds, and atmospheric and ocean circulation. The climate modelers then compare those outputs with measurements from the real world. They then “tune” their models’ equations until they match real-world measurements. Once they decide their models adequately reflect reality, they begin to pose “what-if” questions to seek to predict future climates.[36]

Models are hellishly complex, controversial, and ever-changing. They can be every bit as mutable as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Their assumptions are continually brought into question. For example, one criticism has been leveled that current models vastly overstate the production of coal and that resulting scenarios project implausible extreme climate impacts.[37] [38]

Nevertheless, such models underpin the efforts to create policies to mitigate climate disruption by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And while the models are impressive and valuable, they have inherent shortcomings that limit their ability to reliably predict future climate disruption.

These shortcomings are not the fault of the scientists who create the models; they arise because of lack of data and understanding of the extremely complex, dynamic global climate—both past and present. And the models are based on scientific theory, which is always subject to revision. Wrote climate scientist Zeke Hausfather:

Models are necessarily imperfect and cannot foresee all of the technological or societal changes that will happen over the coming century. For example, models used to struggle to reach 2°C targets before they started including large-scale negative emissions technologies—though these still largely exist only in the models, rather than in real-world deployments at scale.[39]

“Discrepancies between model forecasts and subsequently observed data are expected—indeed, they are the source of progressive improvements in understanding,” wrote Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Dan Kahan, and Dietram Scheufele. “By design, dynamic modeling enlarges knowledge through its failed predictions as much as through its successful ones,”[40]

A major problem with climate models is failure to communicate their uncertainty, the authors wrote:

Not only did the science communicators fail to make this element of climate science clear to the public, but over the past decade, many of them adopted communication “strategies” that elided it. To promote the urgency of action, they depicted the projections of the [IPCC reports] as extrapolations from settled and incontrovertible scientific findings. But because this framing was selected to accommodate the popular understanding that science warrants confidence based on experimentally “proven” facts, it made climate science more vulnerable to attack by those intent on undermining public confidence in it when, as was anticipated by scientists themselves, actual data diverged from the climate science model forecasts.

The range of uncertainty in climate models doesn’t mean they’re wrong. If you rammed your car into a tree, there would be a range of uncertainty about whether you would survive. But ramming your car into a tree would still be a calamity.

The upshot seems to be, scientists really don’t know for sure which models are good and which aren’t.

They “tune” their models

As mentioned earlier, scientists tune their models to improve them. As journalist Paul Voosen explained: “When the equations miss the mark and the model strays from the known climate, scientists . . . bring it back into harmony by adjusting [their models].” Such tuning is, and will remain, ad hoc and limited, wrote Voosen: “Indeed, whether climate scientists like to admit it or not, nearly every model has been calibrated precisely to the 20th century climate records.”[41]

The human element is very much part of the climate modeling “equation.” Climatologist Michael Oppenheimer and colleagues termed expert judgment “an unavoidable element” of climate models.”[42]

Oppenheimer commented that “scientists working in climate change know that the models used throughout climate research have shortcomings. . . the procedure by which experts assess the accuracy of models projecting potentially ruinous outcomes for the planet and society is surprisingly informal [emphasis added]."[43]

However, a key message to climate de-nihilists: Such tuning does not reflect uncertainty about the reality that global heating is happening. That reality is irrefutable.[44] Rather, the tuning relates to uncertainty about the speed and magnitude of temperature rise, sea-level rise, and other phenomena.

Their models look backward with blurry vision

In their modeling, scientists often look backward in order to look forward—using historical data to test their models. But their rearview vision is far from 20/20. In reality, scientists aren’t really sure what historical global temperatures were. There simply wasn’t enough instrumentation. So, historical global temperatures are calculated by blending the few temperatures measured over land with the few measured over ocean, wrote climate scientist Ed Hawkins. These measurements could only be obtained where there were thermometers on land and ships on the ocean. Thus, the measures are “sparse, differently measured changes of temperature over time,” he wrote.[45]

For temperature records beyond the instrumental record, scientists rely on “paleoclimate proxies”—materials preserved within the geologic record, including everything from plankton to cave deposits, which can be analyzed and correlated with climate today.

Another shortcoming of climate models is that they do not take into account data revealing the often-dramatic changes in the ancient paleoclimate. Such data could significantly improve climate models’ accuracy, noted one study. The authors wrote that the tremendous range of ancient temperatures, precipitation patterns, ice coverage, and biological adaptations “are increasingly relevant for improving our understanding” of how greenhouse gases affect the climate.[46]

Their models are blind to abrupt changes

Not only do climate models lack input on ancient abrupt changes, they are unequipped to predict future abrupt changes—understandable, since it is impossible to predict the unpredictable. As the National Climate Assessment stated:

[Climate models] do not include all of the processes that can contribute to feedbacks . . . compound extreme events, and abrupt and/or irreversible changes. For this reason, future changes outside the range projected by climate models cannot be ruled out . . . . Moreover, the systematic tendency of climate models to underestimate temperature change during warm paleoclimates suggests that climate models are more likely to underestimate than to overestimate the amount of long-term future change [emphasis added].[47]

Abrupt changes arise from events like catastrophic volcanic eruptions or “tipping points”—irreversible transitions triggered by rising temperatures. These tipping points cause feedback that produces even greater temperature rise. They include massive release of methane from frozen subsea deposits called clathrates; the uncontrolled burning of peat bogs; and the massive release of carbon dioxide from decay of thawing permafrost.

In cataloging such tipping points, climate physicists have found shortcomings in climate models. Wrote climate physicist Sybren Drijfhout:

Most climate models still don’t even factor in how vegetation will respond to changes in climate [which] would probably lead to more predictions of land-based “tipping points.” Likewise, ice sheet collapses and carbon and methane release from thawing permafrost could also lead to abrupt transitions but aren’t yet included in climate models.[48]

For example, current climate models vary in their predictions of how fast Arctic permafrost will thaw, due to “deficiencies in reproducing surface characteristics and processes,” according to the 2021 IPCC report on the physical basis of climate change.[49] These surface processes include the formation of “thermokarst” lakes produced by thawing permafrost. Vast numbers of such lakes dot the Arctic. [50] The IPCC report found that “not representing thermokarst-inducing processes in ice-rich terrain leads to a systematic underestimation of the rapidity and magnitude of permafrost thaw.”

When researchers created a model that took the effects of new lake formation into account, they found that by 2100, the increased permafrost thawing could add millions more metric tons of methane to the atmosphere per year than other models have predicted.[51]

Carbon emissions from warming soils is another important CO2 source left out of climate models because of high uncertainty. In one study, when ecologists analyzed the results of field experiments in which test plots were artificially warmed, they calculated that up to 50 billion metric tons of carbon could be released from warming soils by 2050. They noted that their estimates have “considerable uncertainty,” but that “the direction of the global soil carbon response is consistent across all scenarios.”[52]

 “It’s of the same order of magnitude as having an extra US on the planet,” co-author Thomas Crowther told The Washington Post. “The entire magnitude of this feedback was removed from several of the Earth system models, the models that inform [the IPCC] because of its massive uncertainty,” he said.[53]

Their models can’t handle feedback

Feedback—in which change triggers more change—is a fundamental property of such tipping points. Climate models fall short in taking into account feedback mechanisms, both the National Climate Assessment and individual researchers have asserted.

One important such mechanism is carbon-cycle feedback. The carbon cycle comprises the chemical and physical processes by which carbon is exchanged among the atmosphere, land, ocean, and organisms. It governs how much emitted carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans and land.

While the oceans and land currently absorb about half of emitted carbon dioxide, this ability drops with rising global temperature. Feedback arises because warming oceans and soil can hold less carbon dioxide. And more carbon dioxide is released by dying trees, wildfires, and thawing permafrost. This carbon dioxide increase feeds back to trigger higher atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Uncertainties about carbon-cycle feedback constitute one of the major reasons why different climate models yield different results.

Such uncertainties could mean major differences in projected warming. Feedbacks could result in up to 25% more warming than in IPCC projections, one study showed.[54]

Their models can’t handle multiple disasters

Nor can models handle the complex interactions of multiple phenomena. As climatologist Katharine Hayhoe commented at a scientific meeting when discussing the report the National Climate Assessment:

Even though we know our climate models incorporate most of the important processes. . . we know they don’t include all the processes that can contribute to these vicious cycles—to these types of compound extreme events, where you have heat and drought, or flood and heat happening at the same time—and abrupt or irreversible changes. And so we conclude that future changes outside the range projected by climate models cannot be ruled out.[55]

And as the report itself pointed out, these effects “can be greater than the sum of the parts.”[56]

Indeed, the future will see more multiple, simultaneous climate disasters, concluded a research review led by Camilo Mora Mora and colleagues compiled data on such hazards as heat waves, drought, floods, storms, and fires and concluded that by 2100, the world could be exposed to three such simultaneous hazards if emissions are not aggressively reduced. Some tropical coastal areas could face up to six simultaneous hazards, they projected. Mora told The New York Times the prospect is “like a terror movie that is real.”[57]

Their models are dehumanized

Because scientists have neglected to see climate disruption as a human problem—as discussed earlier—their models reflect this neglect. For example, climate models have not included the interaction between the “Earth system” and the “Human system,” noted researchers led by Safa Motesharrei. They define the Human system as including growth in resource use, land-use change, emissions, and pollution.

“This makes current models likely to miss important feedbacks in the real Earth-Human system, especially those that may result in unexpected or counterintuitive outcomes,” the researchers wrote.[58]

Their models can conflict with each other and with reality

Computer models’ shortcomings can arise from their inability to reflect the reality revealed by actual measurements.

For example, models tend to underestimate the fossil-fuel particulate emissions that reach the Arctic. Understanding these emissions is important because carbon soot from burning fuels and farm waste lofts high into the atmosphere, spreading worldwide, including in the Arctic. Such soot increases atmospheric temperatures by absorbing sunlight and also coats the white Arctic ice with a layer of heat-absorbing grime, increasing melting.

Researchers led by Yousuke Sato developed an improved model of soot’s effects that will lead to more realistic climate simulations.[59] However, he said, but while the new approach “reduced the underestimation, it did not completely eliminate it.”[60]

Researchers must also adjust their models to accommodate new field measurements—for example, of CO2 emissions from lakes and waterways. Models currently calculate such emissions indirectly using physical laws. However, when researchers took actual measurements of emissions over a reservoir, they found that emissions may be up to 40% greater than previously believed—meaning that models miss a significant source of CO2.[61]

Models have also proven deeply inadequate in assessing how clouds affect global heating. As the 2021 IPCC report on the physical basis put it:

Clouds and aerosols continue to contribute the largest uncertainty to estimates and interpretations of the Earth’s changing energy budget. . . . Climate models are incorporating more of the relevant processes than at the time of [the 2014 report], but confidence in the representation of these processes remains weak.[62]

Indeed, climate modeler Ellie Highwood has dubbed clouds “infernally infuriating.”[63] [64]

Some studies suggest that clouds cool the Earth. One modeling study concluded that future high CO2 levels expected over the next century could cause cooling stratocumulus clouds to dissipate, triggering a massive 8°C heating over that caused by greenhouse gases alone. Clouds would only reform once CO2 levels drop, which could take centuries.[65]

On the other hand, studies based on actual measurements of cloud characteristics concluded that clouds amplify global heating because warming temperatures make the Earth cloudier, triggering a feedback effect.[66] [67] [68] [69]

Even given the shortcomings of global climate models, they have done a good job so far of tracking the inexorable rise of global temperatures.[70] However, as the standard disclaimer on financial documents puts it, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

Earth has entered a new regime rife with catastrophic peril.

Putting you in a climate scientist’s shoes

Imagine you’re a climate scientist. Your research tells you without a doubt that the world faces ecological ruin if governments fail to take drastic steps to avoid climate disruption. You feel a moral obligation to advocate for action, but you also face daunting barriers to that advocacy.

For one thing, fostering your career takes huge amounts of time. You must write extensive proposals to win funding for your research. Because your career is “publish or perish,” you must write detailed scientific papers to share your findings with colleagues.

You also must analyze data, attend seminars and conferences, manage experiments, teach classes, mentor students, attend administrative meetings, and review scientific papers for journals.

You may mount field expeditions to measure tree rings, take cores of glacial ice, sample ocean water, probe ocean currents, explore coral reefs, or chip at sedimentary rock layers.

On top of all that, keeping your sanity requires a social life, family time, and recreation.

Besides experiencing these time crunches, you are not trained for communication. As mentioned earlier, unlike doctors, lawyers, and politicians, you don’t need to explain things to the public as part of your profession. In fact, your profession lacks a culture of explanation, in which communicating with laypeople would be integral to your training and practice. You are accustomed to teaching to an essentially captive audience of students—very different from persuasively explaining to an audience for whom listening to you is entirely elective. And that audience may not agree with your interpretation of the facts, or even the facts themselves.[71]

You have likely never taken a course in communication, so you aren’t practiced in the arts of persuading audiences, telling engaging stories, or creating vivid metaphors.

You are milquetoasted

When you do communicate with the public, your job situation forces you to be “milquetoasted”—muting your voice and moderating your opinions.

You can be summarily fired for speaking out if you work for a private company, such as a government contractor. If you are a government or public university scientist, you must take great care with any public advocacy, scrupulously separating it from your work. For example, the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (CSLDF) cautions such scientists to:

Even by observing such precautions, if you are a government scientist, you risk your career by speaking out—especially given that your agency is headed by a political appointee. Public advocacy can lead to budget cuts, reassignment, and/or your projects being relegated to a back burner.

Even if you work for a university, your academic freedom only goes so far. If you don’t have tenure, you risk your career because of the “inconvenience” your activism might present for your institution. After all, universities depend for support on donors, corporate partners, alumni, and parents; and these probably include people who deny the reality of climate disruption.

Even if donors and corporations do accept climate science, they may be reluctant to invest in research by an outspoken climate advocate who might violate confidentiality agreements. And by speaking out, you may be seen as violating a university culture that values public reserve.

If you find yourself in legal hot water, your university’s lawyers do not necessarily have your best interests in mind. After all, their job is to defend the institution, not its employees. The CSLDF advises you to hire your own lawyer if you find yourself subject to threats, congressional inquiries, subpoenas, or record requests.

For public universities, politics adds another element of doubt about whether the university will protect scientist-advocates. A Board of Regents may renounce, or at least fail to support, an activist scientist.

You must also consider more than just your own career in deciding whether to advocate. You likely work in a collaborative team with scientists inside and outside your institution. Your activism could reflect negatively on the team and damage any collaborative projects. Even your collaborators at private institutions protected from state government interference they may still fear that their association with you will leave them vulnerable to such troublesome eventualities as having their emails made public.

You work in a climate of fear

You could even face personal hazards just for publishing your work in scientific journals, as has climatologist Michael Mann. He is co-author of a famous scientific paper showing that global temperatures are soaring upward, like the blade of a hockey stick.[73] Because of his “hockey stick graph,” he has received death threats against him and his family, and even experienced the horror of opening an envelope full of a white powder that could have been anthrax. It turned out to be cornstarch.[74] He has also fought a protracted legal battle against climate science de-nihilists seeking to obtain his emails.[75]

Environmental activist Bill McKibben has found himself stalked by videographers from right-wing organizations and his stored university archives copied.[76] Wrote climatologist Katharine Hayhoe in her book Saving Us:

Communist, libtard, lunatic; Jezebel, liar, and whore; high priestess of the climate cult and handmaiden of the Antichrist, I’ve been called it all . . . . Nearly every day I receive angry, even hate-filled, objections to the work I do as a climate scientist: tweets, Facebook comments, even the occasional phone call or handwritten letter. “You make your living off climate hysteria,” reads one tweet. A multipage, single-spaced manifesto in my university mailbox starts, “You Lie!!!!” A Facebook message screams, “Get aborted you human-hating c***.[77]

Even as a scientist as you endure such threats and persecution, you are not particularly politically influential, which may discourage you from advocacy. “Scientists have little political power: they are small in numbers, rarely sufficiently financially wealthy to use money as a political tool, and often politically naïve or poorly networked,” wrote climate/environment scientist and communicator Peter Gleick.

Climate scientists face unfriendly legislators when testifying at hearings, wrote Gleick: “The hostility of some policymakers to scientific evidence and information—especially the federal level—has . . . turned them into events more akin to political theater than educational and informational opportunities.”[78]

And as a climate scientist, your public voice has been muted by poor mainstream media coverage. For example, science makes up only a couple of percent of the news coverage in traditional media, found a Project for Excellence in Journalism study.[79]

They lack the advocacy gene

Besides such daunting personal barriers to advocacy, scientists possess a natural disinclination to involve themselves in messy political controversy. While they readily debate scientific facts and findings, public political debate is not as built into their DNA.

Nor do scientists like to “perform” before an audience, using what they may see as unseemly theatrics to compellingly make their case—even though such techniques are fundamental to the psychology of effective communication. So, they prefer to write reports, letters, and op-eds, rather than giving passionate speeches, lobbying, or holding news conferences.

Climate scientist John Abraham expressed this reluctance, writing that “some of my colleagues are understandably skittish about advocacy and avoid it religiously. Others, like myself, will advocate on occasion but be very clear about when the scientist hat comes off and the advocate hat is put on.”[80]

Of course, Abraham ignores the fact that, because he wears a “scientist hat,” his advocacy carries more weight. He fails to perceive his advocacy as a natural, legitimate extension of his science and the insight it brings.

Despite scientists’ ambivalence about advocacy, they are generally positively disposed toward public communication. A survey of scientist members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that an impressive 87% agreed with the statement, “Scientists should take an active role in public policy debates about issues related to science and technology.” However, 56% consider media coverage of their research unimportant.[81] [82]

Scientists’ commitment to advocacy may well be increasing due to the rising urgency of climate disruption and an antiscience political climate. For example, the March for Science events have certainly been salutary and praiseworthy events.[83] That said, it’s worth noting that it took the presidency of Donald Trump and arguably the most antiscience administration in American history to prompt scientists to leave their laboratories and demonstrate.

Perhaps the marches will signal an upswing in scientists’ political involvement. But it is doubtful that they can mount the kind of well-funded lobbying characteristic of corporate lobbies. And it is highly unlikely that they will ever overcome the fundamental barriers to public advocacy laid out in this section.

They are cool-blooded

We humans are emotional creatures, which has served our species well. While our intellect has fueled our enormous success as a species, our emotions are the spark that ignites our drive for survival. Scientists, however, tend to see themselves, wrongly, as purely intellectual creatures, whose principal motivation is cool, emotion-free curiosity.

True, scientists are not most rewarded in their careers for passionate advocacy of their theories, but for dispassionate analytical communication of their findings. Their scientific papers are understated, dry, and conservative in vernacular—sometimes to the point of absurdity.

An example of such absurdly low-key prose is a description of a geoengineering proposal to reduce global temperatures by injecting sulfur into the atmosphere. [84] The scheme by Ulrike Niemeier and Simone Tilmes is distinct in its unworkability and peril. In their deadpan prose, the authors cite “uncertain” aspects that include the level of injection and distribution patterns.

However, the kicker comes when they dryly cite that injections would have to continue for 160 years, require spewing eight million metric tons of sulfur a year into the atmosphere, from 6,700 airplane flights a day, at a cost of $20 billion a year. The authors’ ability to cite such statistics without exclaiming the scheme’s foolhardiness is breathtaking.

Scientists’ public documents are similarly understated, often to the point of vapidity. A prime example is an open letter from members of the National Academy of Sciences after Donald Trump’s nomination. The letter was dry, factual, and bloodless, despite the outrageousness of Trump’s claim that climate disruption was a hoax and his threat to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

For one thing, the Academy letter was not from “shocked,” “dismayed,” or “astonished” scientists, but from “concerned members” of the Academy. And it only called climate disruption a “real, serious, and immediate problem” that “poses significant risks.” The letter blandly declared that “it is of great concern [emphasis added]”—and not even of “greatest” concern—that Trump advocated US withdrawal from the Paris Accord.[85] You can imagine how little impact this letter had amid the high emotions of the campaign.

Scientists’ tendency to tamp down passion in their communications has compromised their role as a source of accurate information because true accuracy requires emotional context. Scientists are fact-driven, while the public is driven more often by emotion, and politicians by political calculation, with facts often taking a back seat.

Back in 2009, the authors of The Psychology of Climate Change Communication leveled a charge that, in my experience, is still true today:

Many of the highly publicized graphs and charts showing global climate change data . . . fail to inspire a sense of urgency in many audiences. They do not help convey the deep concern scientists have that efforts to abate and adapt to climate change are a near-term necessity if humanity is to avert the worst effects.[86]

Scientists tend to be similarly passionless when they give talks to lay audiences. As one who has sat through a multitude of their lay-level talks, I can attest that scientists are all too often lackluster performers—low-key, low-energy, and data-spouting. Unlike, say, lawyers and politicians, they shy away from using the dynamic stagecraft that makes for effective presentations. This lack of emotion may arise from their teaching role, where they see their primary job as imparting facts to students, not engaging their interest. But it certainly arises from scientists’ lack of an explanatory culture.

They cling to the deficit model

Scientists tend to be “factivists”—enamored of the belief that they need only feed their audiences facts, and those audiences will readily adopt the rational view of such topics as climate disruption. However, reaching the public and policymakers means not only transmitting scientific information, but interpreting its policy implications and advocating for that interpretation—even, God forbid, showing passion.

In their communication, scientists have long embraced a theory called the “deficit model.” The model holds that correcting wrong-headed thinking only requires remedying people’s lack of information.

However, this “most widely held, and simplest model of what audiences need from science communication . . . is wrong,” as was so pithily expressed in the publication Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda.[87] The authors wrote that research on communication:

Shows that audiences may already understand what scientists know but, for diverse reasons, do not agree or act consistently with that science. . . . People rarely make decisions based only on scientific information; they typically also take into account their own goals and needs, knowledge and skills, and values and beliefs.

Another problem with the deficit model is that corrective information quickly fades, concluded studies by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and colleagues. They and other researchers conducted experiments testing the durability of corrective information like fact checks. They found that the corrections “frequently seem to decay or be overwhelmed by cues from elites and the media promoting more congenial but less accurate claims.”[88]

The irony is that data-loving scientists—in uncritically embracing the deficit model—ignore data from psychological studies disproving the model’s effectiveness. As microbiologist Amanda Freise wrote, “the reluctance of some scientists to accept the failure of the deficit model approach indicates that pure information isn't enough to convince them, either—otherwise, they would acknowledge the research and look for new ways to talk to the public.”[89]

Studies have conclusively shown that more information does not lead to “enlightenment.” When psychologists measured the science literacy of 1,540 people, then asked them for their opinions about climate disruption, the psychologists found that political beliefs tended to trump knowledge. Conservative subjects who knew the most about science tended to believe that climate change posed the lowest risk. The researchers concluded that facts were trumped by people’s personal interest “in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties.”[90]

Many science groups do understand that scientists need to go beyond mere data transmission. The American Association for the Advancement of Science operates an Office of Government Relations that helps scientist advocate for research.[91] And the COMPASS science communication program trains scientists to build advocacy into their communication.[92] The American Geophysical Union offers its members resources and training to enable them to advocate for Earth and space science.[93]

The Union of Concerned Scientists recognizes the inadequacy of mere data transmission by offering workshops on communicating and advocating. The workshops include how to influence decision-makers, talk with the media, and work with communities.[94]

Even given such efforts, the erroneous deficit model will continue to periodically rise, zombie-like, to stalk the scientific community. The hallmark of its undead presence will be naïve declarations by scientists that they seek to “educate” and/or “inform” the public and/or policymakers to enlighten them about the truth of a scientific theory—whether it is climate disruption, evolution, or another partisan issue.

They are wishy-washy worded

Just as scientists’ communications are milquetoasted, so have been the words they have used in their prose. In choosing descriptive words, climate scientists in the past tended to downplay the seriousness of climate disruption, according to climatologist James Risbey.

In a 2008 article, he charged that climatologists tended to dismiss as “value-laden” such terms as “catastrophic,” “rapid,” “urgent,” “irreversible,” “chaotic,” and “worse than previously thought”—even though climate change can be legitimately described as such. At the same time, scientists did not label as value-laden milder terms that are just as subjective, Risbey wrote.

“This asymmetry in use of the charge of ‘value-loading’ is a form of scientific reticence and weakens scientific communication in the face of actual threats to the public,” he wrote.[95]

A classic example of more recent wishy-washy wording was the phrase “Hothouse Earth,” used in a research paper by Will Steffen and colleagues to describe the risk of self-reinforcing feedbacks on global temperatures.[96] The phrase is timid, in that a hothouse is a heated building meant to grow plants out of season—in other words, a comfortable environment. The phrase “Hellscape Earth” would more aptly describe the true catastrophic impact of global heating.

As alarm over climate disruption has grown, some scientists have finally begun using appropriately urgent language to describe its dangers. In 2020, one group warned of “a ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health, and climate-disruption upheavals.”[97] And in 2021, a group of more than 14,000 scientists warned of a “climate emergency,” citing “mounting evidence that we are nearing or have already crossed tipping points associated with critical parts of the Earth system.”[98]

However, this evolution in language is, arguably, too little, too late.

They are word-deaf

Scientists are also “word-deaf,” tending to resort to arcane jargon when speaking to nonscientists. Climate communicator Susan Hassol counsels using more lay-friendly substitutes for such jargon, like “human-caused” instead of “anthropogenic” and “time” instead of “temporal.” She wrote:

Saying human activity “contributes” to global warming makes it sound like human activity might be only a minor contributor. It would be more accurate to say “most of the warming” . . . Avoid using the word “debate” in connection with climate change . . . try something like “the urgent challenge of human-induced climate disruption,” rather than “climate debate.”[99]

The word “uncertainty” is among the most misleading such words in climate science—to the public anyway. Using the term severely hinders accurate communication to lay audiences. They see the word as denoting ignorance rather than merely a statistical term denoting the range of possible values of a measurement.

For example, a summary for policymakers of the 2021 IPCC report used the words “uncertain,” “uncertainty,” or “uncertainties” some 16 times in its 41 pages.[100]

The IPCC report said that, even though wide uncertainty ranges likely encompassed true values of climate effects, “wide intervals were interpreted by lay people as implying subjective uncertainty or lack of knowledge on the part of scientists.”[101]

IPCC scientists failed to communicate effectively the risk probabilities of climate disruption effects, found psychologists. They surveyed lay-level respondents on their interpretation of risk-communicating sentences from the IPCC reports. The IPCC reports explicitly defined “very likely” to mean a greater than 90% probability, but the psychologists found that most of the respondents took “very likely” to mean down to 65% or less.[102]

This critical perception gap means that policymakers could well perceive the scientific evidence for global heating as weaker than it really is.

Scientists’ terminal terminological error

The uncritical adoption of the terms “climate change” and “global warming” has been by far the most egregious and damaging examples of scientists’ word deafness. Both terms were introduced in early scientific papers and went on to be adopted as de facto standards. The term “climatic change” apparently appeared for the first time in a 1956 paper by physicist Gilbert Plass.[103] And “global warming” was popularized by a 1975 paper by geochemist Wallace Broecker.[104]

Both these terms reflect scientists’ penchant for bland understatement, as well as a lack of appreciation of the wider impact of their words. And ironically—given scientists’ pride in using precise technical terms—both phrases are imprecise.

“Climate change” is a neutral term that fails to reflect its profound global impact. The innocuous word “change” seems to signify a natural, evolutionary process, rather than an abrupt alteration. Its adoption as the default term has certainly given climate disruption de-nihilists an opening big enough to drive a tanker truck through. They often use the term to make the invalid point that the climate has always been “changing.”

More accurate and informative is the term “climate disruption.” It conveys the idea of an unnatural global climatic discontinuity. Certainly, de-nihilist could not argue that the climate has always been “disrupting.”

The term “climate disruption” has been used occasionally by such distinguished scientists as Paul and Anne Ehrlich, John Holdren, and Stuart Pimm. [105] [106] [107] However, it is not in widespread usage.

The term “global warming” is just as misleading. It evokes a benign, even pleasant, process, rather than the existential threat it really is. For example, we “warm” ourselves to feel more comfortable when we are cold. We give people a warm welcome because we have a warm personality.

This book uses “global heating,” as have such groups as Greenpeace to more accurately describe the dangerous temperature rise from increased greenhouse gases.[108]

By perpetuating the inaccurate terms “climate change” and “global warming,” scientists inadvertently sabotaged their own efforts to convey the urgency of action to prevent ecological disaster.

As a result of the shortcomings enumerated in this section, scientists’ voices have been tragically muted on climate disruption. They have failed to convey the peril of the looming climate pandemic.


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