Weep for Cassandra if you must, but heed her warnings, for humanity’s sake

It’s April of 2022. We’ve had a couple years of disruption, primarily caused by the collision of late capitalism and SARS-CoV-2, which itself followed a couple years of unrest in the United States, and the growing realization that fascism was still a real threat. And in the background of all of this, we’ve had a steady march of disasters fueled by global warming, and scientific reports quantifying exactly how screwed we are.

Small wonder, then, that superstition seems to be on the rise. Every headline about black goo in a sarcophagus, or climate change revealing ancient artifacts was met with a lot of joking-not-joking about curses, or Pandora’s Box.

For myself, I have to wonder if some early climate scientist broke an indecent agreement with Apollo, so that all future climate scientists would be cursed to speak the truth about the growing threat of climate change, and to be disbelieved or dismissed by everyone with the power to do anything about it. Worse, an entire industry has formed around attacking and discrediting climate scientists. If you want to get a taste of that frustration, you can check out things like The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, by Michael E. Mann.

I once heard someone say that the more you learn about nuclear power, the less it scares you, but the more you learn about climate change, the more it scares you. Imagine, then, the life of someone whose full time job is monitoring this unfolding catastrophe, and reporting on it to what often seems like an indifferent world.

The reality, of course, is that most of humanity is not indifferent. Most of us care very much about what’s happening, we just don’t currently have the power to change anything. That’s something we should be working on, but in the meantime, at least part of our efforts do need to go towards convincing the ruling class to at least stop accelerating towards the proverbial cliff. Climate scientists have been making that case for decades now, and it has been a thankless task.

Among the many attacks levied against them, one that always irked me especially was the claim that climate scientists were “getting political” by describing the implications of their research, and by urging action. It is so obviously insincere, and yet it has hung around. I think part of its longevity is the fact that it does double duty. It casts doubt on the science, and it communicates to the audience that “being political” is an inherently bad thing. That’s dangerous, of course, because if we’re going to have any hope of a better world, we must get political , and at a scale the world has never seen before.

I am nowhere close to being alone in making the Cassandra comparison, and unfortunately it seems to be just as unpleasant as you’d think. Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist, published this letter in association with a protest carried out by him and his colleagues:

I’m a climate scientist and a desperate father. How can I plead any harder? What will it take? What can my colleagues and I do to stop this catastrophe unfolding now all around us with such excruciating clarity?

On Wednesday, I risked arrest by locking myself to an entrance to the JP Morgan Chase building in downtown Los Angeles with colleagues and supporters. Our action in LA is part of an international campaign organized by a loosely knit group of concerned scientists called Scientist Rebellion, involving more than 1,200 scientists in 26 countries and supported by local climate groups. Our day of action follows the IPCC Working Group 3 report released Monday, which details the harrowing gap between where society is heading and where we need to go. Our movement is growing fast.

We chose JP Morgan Chase because out of all the investment banks in the world, JP Morgan Chase funds the most new fossil fuel projects. As the new IPCC report explains, emissions from current and planned fossil energy infrastructure are already more than twice the amount that would push the planet over 1.5°C of global heating, a level of heating that will bring much more intense heat, fire, storms, flooding, and drought than the present 1.2°C.

Even limiting heating to below 2°C, a level of heating that in my opinion could threaten civilization as we know it, would require emissions to peak before 2025. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in the press conference on Monday: “Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness.” And yet, this is precisely what President Biden, most other world leaders, and major banks are doing. It’s no exaggeration to say that Chase and other banks are contributing to murder and neocide through their fossil fuel finance.

Earth breakdown is much worse than most people realize. The science indicates that as fossil fuels continue to heat our planet, everything we love is at risk. For me, one of the most horrific aspects of all this is the juxtaposition of present-day and near-future climate disasters with the “business as usual” occurring all around me. It’s so surreal that I often find myself reviewing the science to make sure it’s really happening, a sort of scientific nightmare arm-pinch. Yes, it’s really happening.
If everyone could see what I see coming, society would switch into climate emergency mode and end fossil fuels in just a few years.

I hate being the Cassandra. I’d rather just be with my family and do science. But I feel morally compelled to sound the alarm. By the time I switched from astrophysics into Earth science in 2012, I’d realized that facts alone were not persuading world leaders to take action. So I explored other ways to create social change, all the while becoming increasingly concerned. I joined Citizens’ Climate Lobby. I reduced my own emissions by 90% and wrote a book about how this turned out to be satisfying, fun, and connecting. I gave up flying, started a website to help encourage others, and organized colleagues to pressure the American Geophysical Union to reduce academic flying. I helped organize FridaysForFuture in the US. I co-founded a popular climate app and started the first ad agency for the Earth. I spoke at climate rallies, city council meetings, and local libraries and churches. I wrote article after article, open letter after open letter. I gave hundreds of interviews, always with authenticity, solid facts, and an openness to showing vulnerability. I’ve encouraged and supported countless climate activists and young people behind the scenes. And this was all on my personal time and at no small risk to my scientific career.

Nothing has worked. It’s now the eleventh hour and I feel terrified for my kids, and terrified for humanity. I feel deep grief over the loss of forests and corals and diminishing biodiversity. But I’ll keep fighting as hard as I can for this Earth, no matter how bad it gets, because it can always get worse. And it will continue to get worse until we end the fossil fuel industry and the exponential quest for ever more profit at the expense of everything else. There is no way to fool physics.

Martin Luther King Jr said, “He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Out of necessity, and after exhaustive efforts, I’ve joined the ranks of those who selflessly risk their freedom and put their bodies on the line for the Earth, despite ridicule from the ignorant and punishment from a colonizing legal system designed to protect the planet-killing interests of the rich. It’s time we all join them. The feeling of solidarity is a wonderful balm.

As for the climate scientists? We’ve been trying to tell you this whole time.

This was one part of a multinational protest by over 1,000 climate scientists, aimed specifically at the big banks that are funding – and profiting from – our destruction. The notion that scientists ought to be non-political has always been a lie that could only ever benefit the powerful. In a world that seems to only value the sensational, we need acts of civil disobedience like this, and we need to build the capacity to wield collective power for the collective good. These scientists are in the right when they aim for the heart of our capitalist system, and while I really, really want to be wrong about this, I have little hope that our corporate overlords will suddenly decide to do the right thing.

One thing I think we should be doing, beyond organizing and protesting, is finding ways to bring up climate change with politicians and their representatives. Not just climate change, but the ways in which our system – working as it was designed – is making it profitable to turn this planet into a sweltering hellscape. Make it impossible for them to ignore, and when they respond with talking points, challenge those, and the ones that come after them. Individually, we’re limited in how much time and energy we can spend on this. Anyone with a sense of perspective realizes that the mightiest effort of one person is a drop in the bucket, compared to the size of the problem. If we can get enough of us moving in the same direction, those drops can become a relentless storm, and if we can’t force our rulers to at least go with the flow, then maybe we can wash them away.

Thanks to StevoR for requesting the topic.

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  1. John Morales says


    For myself, I have to wonder if some early climate scientist broke an indecent agreement with Apollo, so that all future climate scientists would be cursed to speak the truth about the growing threat of climate change, and to be disbelieved or dismissed by everyone with the power to do anything about it.

    When you wrote that, what came to mind was the Apollonian and Dionysian conceptual distinction. In this case, science vs. economics.

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