You might remember a time when most people celebrated Earth Day for only a single day. Well now there are so many Earth Day events that the single day turned into a whole week (Earth Week) or the whole month of April (Earth Month). Yay, Earth! You deserve it! Here at Earth Right Now, every day is Earth Day and many of you probably feel the same way.
Over the past few weeks, these celebrations gave me the opportunity to get out and interact with the public—sitting on science panels, giving speeches, participating in social media events—on the frontline of sorts, which is the best chance for me to learn from all of you. I’m going to spend the next couple of blog posts sharing a few of the major themes.
First, I noticed how often members of the public ask scientists about climate change policy. This is hard. A scientist’s job does not include telling people what to do. Instead, a scientist helps explain how the world works. The best advice I can give anyone is to learn for yourself; get educated. Learn about the scientific method—about how science is based on making observations, collecting and understanding evidence—and then go ahead. Trust yourself. Make your decisions based upon reliable evidence. Yes, you can do this—anyone can.
Understanding the science will help you when you're faced with the other phenomenon that I observed on the frontlines this Earth Month: people’s sensitivity and prickliness around the topic of hydraulic fracturing (the scientifically accurate word for the term "fracking"). The mere mention of the science behind natural gas or shale induces hordes of flesh-eating zombies to crawl out, torches ablaze, ready for a round of flame wars. In fact, people seem so terrified by hydraulic fracturing that when I pause to cultivate a logical or thoughtful analysis, my calm demeanor is interpreted as I'm "for" or "against" gas drilling, depending on which side the listener stands.
As I’ve written before, finding the balance between alarm and apathy when dealing with climate change is a challenge. And like Goldilocks, I’m aiming for that place that feels just right: logical and calm. Yet many people are desperate for scientists to “pick a side.”
Stay calm, stay logical
There are two practical reasons I favor the stability of Goldie over the terror of her zombie foes. The first is that our brains don’t function well when our nerves get rattled; and we need to use our intelligence more than ever right now. Second, a more objective, less wound-up mindset is an asset in the search for appropriate energy sources we can all use. I mean, let’s face it: We all use energy. That includes you, reading this blog. After all, teams of hamsters are not powering the Internet.
So if panic doesn’t help, and steadily observing the world so we can make better decisions does help, then let’s take a look at natural gas, which is a type of fossil fuel upon which we’ve been increasingly relying in this country. About a third of the energy we use today comes from hydraulically fractured shale. I had the opportunity to learn about the fossils that make our fossil fuels when I visited The Paleontological Research Institution and its Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, New York, where I held a piece of Marcellus shale in my hand.
The team of scientists at The Paleontological Research Institution knows about the strong emotions surrounding shale, but they also know how to put things into perspective. As custodians of one of the most complete mastodon skeletons ever found, they have a constant reminder of the geological time scale. As Don Duggan-Haas, director of teacher programming for the institute, explained, “Throughout human history, we’ve resolved one environmental issue only to start a whole new one.”
Before we relied so much on natural gas, we lopped the tops off of mountains to get at the coal inside, which does considerable environmental damage. Before we burned coal, humans supplied most of our energy needs by hunting whales and burning whale oil. As an oceanographer, I love the sea and the creatures in it, so I am emphatically certain that I do not want to burn any whales. No way. I’m going to go out on a limb here by saying I’m against burning whales.
But humans discovered how to use fire about 2 million years ago, which means it’s pretty unrealistic to believe that we’re going to stop anytime soon. I suggest that we face—as thoughtfully and as deliberately as possible—the reality that our behavior often has a negative impact on our environment. Acknowledging that truth will enable us to decide which strategies will limit, and even lessen, many of those negative impacts.
As always, I look forward to reading your comments.
The planet is warming and our climate changing. As political leaders around the world fail to reach agreement on how to curb the greenhouse-gas emissions that are the underlying problem, others are touting a more radical way to combat climate change: "geoengineering." The idea behind geoengineering is to deliberately tinker with the climate system to counteract man-made climate change. Schemes suggested include making clouds and crops brighter so that they reflect more sunlight back out into space, using high-altitude balloons to inject aerosols into the stratosphere and cool the Earth, or sucking carbon dioxide out of the air so that it can't trap heat and contribute to global warming. In the absence of a planet B, hacking the planet is a possible plan B. (See our "Just 5 questions" article for more info.)
But the idea isn’t actually new. As James Fleming, a historian of science at Colby College, argues in his history of geoengineering, “Fixing the Sky,” one of the first attempts to engineer the planet was Project Argus in 1958. A top-secret military endeavor, Project Argus detonated atomic bombs in the upper atmosphere – about 500 kilometers (roughly 300 miles) up. The goal was to demonstrate that enemy radio and radar communications could be disrupted from half a world away, or enemy intercontinential ballistic missiles could be destroyed. In the process, the experiment also created a new radiation belt around the Earth that lasted for several years, disrupting the natural magnetosphere.
James Van Allen, discoverer of the Van Allen radiation belts, initially waxed enthusiastic at Argus’ accomplishment: “The U.S. tests, already carried out successfully, undoubtedly constitute the greatest geophysical experiment ever conducted by man.” Argus was followed by other U.S. and Soviet high-altitude tests, lasting until 1962. But radio astronomers were not so happy, arguing: “No government has the right to change the environment in any significant way without prior international study and agreement.” Argus had interfered with their science.
Van Allen later regretted his participation in these experiments, and above-ground nuclear weapons testing was finally banned in 1963, ending the career of this kind of geoengineering.
The history of these interventions and the ensuing protests serve as a cautionary tale for today’s geoengineers and, indeed, the organizations that will be tasked with regulating any future geoengineering. While some are keen to jump in with a quick and possibly profitable fix to climate change, others see a field fraught with technical, moral and political problems. As Fleming writes: “Geoengineering is in fact untested and dangerous. We don’t understand it, we can’t test it on smaller than planetary scales, and we don’t have the political capital, wisdom, or will to govern it. Planetary tinkering is not “cheap”, as some economists claim, since the side effects are unknown … Most poignantly, by turning the blue sky milky white or the blue oceans soupy green, by attenuating sunlight – and with it starlight, and by putting bureaucrats and technocrats in charge of a global thermostat, geoengineering will alter fundamental human relationships to nature.”
Readers of this blog have made quite a few thoughtful comments. To show my appreciation, I’m going to respond to a common request. Lots of people are finally understanding the complexities of the science behind climate change and are starting to face the enormity of the problem, so now they want to know about solutions, what to do about climate change.
Honestly, if I had the solution to the problem of climate change, then I would be way too busy actualizing that solution to have time left to write this blog. Also, at NASA, our focus is on gathering the latest and most accurate measurements in order to give scientists and the public the most complete picture possible of our changing planet.
What I can offer, though, is to share a two-step program I’ve come up with and use on a daily basis. These two actions alone won’t stop climate change, but they can help us to move toward a more positive impact on our environment. Also—let’s face it—climate change is a bummer. We need something to keep us out of despair, something to help us face the challenge.
Here are the two steps I recommend to help you connect with planet Earth and stay strong while facing the reality of climate change: First, nourish your relationship with nature every day. And second, take personal responsibility for what you can control as an individual.
In honor of Earth Day (coming up April 22), I'm going to go into detail about the first step in today's blog. Check back again soon for the next installment.
Step 1: Connect with nature
Earth Day represents a yearly reminder for all of us to make a personal connection with our planet. At NASA we’re encouraging everyone to go outside and take a #GlobalSelfie. You can find out more info here.
But you can also remember your relationship with Earth every day of the year. This might sound corny to you, but it has helped me a lot. I believe that if more people would spend just a moment every day being present with the natural world, it would make them more inclined to care for it.
You can connect with Earth each time you go outside. For just one moment, stop rushing, stop thinking, stop the internal dialogue, and see the trees, see the plants, see the sky—even if it breaks your heart, because sometimes the natural world can be sad.
Don’t turn away from it. This is easy if you happen to live in a beautiful countryside, but even in the largest city, you can still find a tiny plant breaking its way through the concrete. Something that small can be your reminder to pause and connect.
Working at NASA, I spend much of my time looking at images of the Earth, and it’s that view from space that gives me a global perspective of our planet. It also gives me a unique sense of intimacy with our world. Just because an event occurs on the other side of the planet doesn’t mean it’s not my home. The Earth is our home. And this is exactly what you can see when you look at the view from space.
Go look at satellite images of Earth for yourself in our Beautiful Earth and Images of Change galleries (the latter is also available as an iPad app). See with your own eyes, and make your own connection. Do that every day.
Thanks for your comments and for sharing your thoughts.
Gavin Schmidt, a colleague of mine at NASA, was interviewed about the severity of climate change on an episode of HBO’s "Vice" that also covered the topic of Greenland’s melting ice sheet.
“If we don’t cut carbon emissions by 80 percent,” Schmidt said, “we’re talking about a scenario where sea level rise is accelerating.” He went on to point out that, “our emissions are going up, not down.”
HBO’s "Vice" is honest and raw, which is the exception, not the norm. Hard-hitting, accurate information about the actual severity of the climate problem is practically non-existent in the media.
The program scared me, and part of me wishes that the rest of society would finally get alarmed about climate change, too, if only it would help move us towards action. Yet I wonder how many people even managed to view this show.
Like many climate scientists and climate science communicators must feel, I’m sick with frustration. I want to shout, “Hey, people of Earth, pay attention! We have collectively changed the planet; it’s a done deal!"
But I also wonder if having another fear over which to get freaked out is what our society needs. We’re so copiously plastered with gun violence and war that the term “prepper” was recently coined to refer to people preparing for Doomsday. (No wonder zombie apocalypse is the new black.) So climate change gets thrown on the heap with pandemics and nuclear annihilations, and we all scoff, “whatever.”
On top of all that, people I know are freaking out over bankruptcy, foreclosure and barely making their rent. How dare I tell them that their personal economic crisis is less dire, less real than the global crisis of climate change?
Last week I presented and organized ClimatePalooza 2014, a collaboration between NASA’s JPL and USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism that hopes to foster conversation about climate change. We purposely tried to make the event sound less frightening and more inviting. We had music and comedy sketches lined up alongside science talks, booths and discussions about taking action. Yet I question this more light-hearted approach as much as I question a fear-based one.
Climate change is upon us, and it's happening now. The time for debates and fun times has passed.
When creating a message, it’s exhausting trying to find a balance and getting viewers to pay attention without scaring them away. It’s exhausting trying to make a difference. I already have a fuel-efficient vehicle and solar panels, I already write for a climate change website. I walk more, buy local, compost. What more can a person do by themselves? I know we all individually and collectively could be doing more. What do you think?
As always, I look forward to reading your comments.