[ESSAY] How am I supposed to answer “Are we screwed?”

This essay was written by Mike Osborne.  If you wish to hear Mike read it, click play below.

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As a climate scientist in training, the most common question I get from my non-science friends is this: “So, are we just, like… screwed?” That’s it. That’s the question I get. Are we screwed?

It took a while for me to get comfortable with this question, and, at first, I had no idea how to react. This is a really interesting question to be asked. It’s vague, full of fear, and totally lacking any nuance whatsoever. Actually, if I’m honest with myself, it’s the question that drove me to become a climate scientist in the first place. Ten years ago I walked away from college thinking, “The planet is screwed, we’re all screwed. Or, at least I think we’re screwed. But wait…are we really screwed? Maybe not. Shoot, I don’t know. I don’t have enough information here. I’ll go back to school.”

I’m in the last throes of my PhD, and I think I finally understand the “screwed” question— if not the answer.

A raw urgency arises whenever people talk about climate change. We’ve all heard scientists say, “We’re running out of time to deal with this” or “The clock is ticking” or “The world needs to act before it’s too late.” Some people criticize this as apocalyptic rhetoric, and, truth be told, the language of global warming is often rapture-like. Is the apocalypse really coming? Are we screwed?

Like any good scientist, I can’t give a firm answer to this question, and truthfully no one can. Anyone who claims to be able to foretell the apocalypse is, at best, overstepping the bounds of scientific certainty. But I love that my friends THINK I might know the answer. We scientists are supposed to know stuff—valuable stuff. Like whether or not the world’s going to end.

My personal and scientific opinion is that the answer is “No”. The world is not going to end. Yes, things are going to change, and they’re going to change fast, but the world’s not all coming to a screeching halt. The Earth will continue spinning on its axis, the planet will keep revolving around the sun, and winter is still coming (once a year, Game of Thrones fans).

Which is not to say that climate change doesn’t matter. I think it matters a lot. In fact, I think it’s arguably the most important issue facing the world today. But, let’s be honest— we scientists have to start approaching this whole “climate/apocalypse” question with a bit more nuance.

The first step should be to ask ourselves, “Why does climate matter?” Forget global warming for a second. Why does climate matter? I don’t think we scientists appreciate the complexity or importance of that question. If you want to make a case that climate change is potentially catastrophic, you have to first show that climate itself matters— especially that it matters to people. The reasons are less obvious than you might think.

Climate is about context. It’s the rules of nature, the terms of life, the operating conditions for global ecology. Climate is about what organisms live where, and how they came to be there. Climate explains our present biological configuration. It’s the scaffolding, the skeletal structure upon which Earth’s biodiversity is draped.

For those of us living in the developed world, the root of the problem is that we believe (with some misguided justification) that climate stability is irrelevant to modern human livelihood. “Nature” is about serene forests and vibrant coral reefs. It’s nice, and maybe even holy, but it’s not something we depend on. We’ve been so successful at bending nature to suit our needs, that we no longer view it as important.

Of course, we’re jarred loose from this fallacy every time a natural disaster strikes. Hurricanes cost money, droughts destroy crops, floods ruin property, and forest fires clear out homes. Extreme weather events are freakin’ expensive. Climate matters when it kicks us in the pocketbook. But, for those of us wealthy enough to pay for the damages, it’s easy to go on pretending that climate stability isn’t all that important.

Global warming is unquestionably an environmental problem, but is it only an environmental problem? Yes, climate change will affect polar bears and coastal ecosystems. But the more the planet warms, the more we realize that global warming impacts international trade and disrupts political stability. At some point the costs accumulate. Money flows differently in a rapidly changing planet.

The frustrating reality is that the human effects of global warming are disparate and diffuse. The specific consequences of climate change are difficult to trace, and even more difficult to attribute. We’ll never know what might have been if the US senate ratified the Kyoto Protocol in 1999. We’ll never know how a Gore presidency might have responded differently than the Bush presidency did (not). We’ll never know how global temperatures in 2050 might have been cooler if Congress passed Cap & Trade in 2009.

Our climate models forecast thousands of realizations, but, at the end of the day, the world only has one realization. The “what ifs” are left as guessing games for future historians.

I think about it like this: climate is context, and that’s what we’re changing. It’s like putting Pulp Fiction in New York instead of LA. It’s a whole different movie when you change the setting. Scientists can’t tell us how the story ends. All we can say is that the setting is going to be different.

That’s why I keep coming back to the Anthropocene. It’s the perfect description for our new setting. The story of humans, and how “screwed” we are, depends ultimately on our adaptive capability. Thus far we’ve demonstrated that we’re perhaps the most adaptable organism in the history of the planet. We are amazing innovators, and you have to believe that we’re an evolutionary success (if not a bit selfish). Today is a better day to be alive on planet Earth than any day before, and it’s unlikely that it’ll all end tomorrow.

But we better get used to the idea that things are going to look a lot different moving forward. And maybe, just maybe we’re better off NOT hastening the move.

Did that sound apocalyptic? It did, didn’t it? Damn. It wasn’t meant to.




6 thoughts on “[ESSAY] How am I supposed to answer “Are we screwed?”

  1. The other day I half-heartedly tried to convince folks that going to a keyboardless world may be a case of humans devolving as computers grow smarter. I don’t really believe that but I do think that there will be dire consequences from climate change, starting with not enough food to eat and that in the race between getting to the stars and staying behind to broil on the planet, we are losing the race. Our civilization’s apex was probably about 50 years ago, and yes, I think that over all, we are devolving. We are very adaptable but not, especially in the essentially democratic and capitalistic systems we have over all, not very good at thinking into the future. The bloody military does a better job. We’ll just have to have a few more apocalyptic events first, darn it all, and then it will probably be too late. I think we have to start putting more funding into the 3D food printer and seeding the oceans some way or another. Right now.

  2. Thanks for writing this. I’ve always had trouble responding to this kind question in a way that doesn’t encourage lazy fatalism; if we’re screwed, why bother changing our behavior? Are we capable of screwing ourselves over? Certainly. Is that the our only option? Certainly not.

  3. The question also depends on who “we’ are. Polar bears are screwed. Golden toads are screwed. Rio Grande silvery minnows are screwed. Wolverines might be screwed. Miami blue butterflies are definitely screwed.

    Where do the other 99.99999% of species fit into this discourse?

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