Last week was not easy for me, schedule-wise. It was the first week of classes for my campus, my son’s third week back to school, and I was solo parenting, while my spouse was traveling for work.
So what did I do? I made things a bunch harder on myself, and spent the majority of the week at the LA Convention Center, to participate in the Leadership Training for Climate Reality. (That’s Al Gore’s organization). With a bunch of pressing deadlines and new demands from various quarters, I felt a little anxious or guilty sitting in on this training. If I really wanted to work for action on climate change, then maybe I could have found a more efficient route? Maybe, maybe not, I don’t know. The training was designed for folks from all backgrounds to become leaders in their own communities, and wasn’t designed to help research scientists leverage their expertise. But we all need to be leaders in our own communities, right?
Tangibly, what I’ve taken away from the training is a green pin, and now I’m one of 17,000 people in the world who’ve been through their trainings.
One statistic that bounced around this training was that in a given month, only one in five people talk about climate change with someone they know. Which blows my mind, considering it’s embedded in so many news stories, and so many policy decisions, and our everyday experiences. I mean, how can someone go through this extraordinarily hot year — and all of these fires — without talking about climate change? But there it is. We need people need to hear and talk and think more about climate change. We need it at the foundation of voting decisions and interactions with elected officials. Sure, science dismissers are loud and financed by the fossil fuel industries, but it’s clear that there’s a robust majority of people who accept the science of climate change and want our policymakers to make changes to our energy economy.
The less tangible thing that I took way from this training is hope for the future. The evidence is entirely clear that fossil fuels are our past, and that our economy is moving towards carbon-neutral energy sources. We have all of the technology we need, and solar power and wind power are now actually cheaper to generate than oil, gas, and coal. Storage is getting cheaper and more practical. It’s not a question whether we’re going to go carbon-neutral, but how quickly we’re going to do it. I’ve experienced a huge dose of existential despair about the climate crisis, but this gathering has given me many specific reasons to have genuine hope.
In the fall of my senior year in college (1992), I took a seminar course, in which we took the whole semester to discuss a new book chapter by chapter — the book was Earth In The Balance by Senator Al Gore. This was a transformational experience. This book described the problems of the ozone hole and the greenhouse effect, and how our response to these challenges would determine the future for humanity. Since that time, along with everybody else, I’ve been watching global CO₂ creep up, temperatures climb, melting glaciers, flooding cities, and we still keep spewing carbon into the atmosphere (“as if it was an open sewer,” as Gore put it). My perspective on climate change has been scaffolded on what I learned from Al Gore’s book.
28 years later, it was pretty cool to get the up-to-date long-form 2.5 hour climate change presentation from Al Gore himself. While you would think it would have been terrifying to see the relative lack of progress we’ve made since we’ve all been warned in 1992, it was quite encouraging, because of the rapid progress we’ve seen in recent years, as cheap carbon-neutral energy is already here. Gore exudes a dire concern and a genuine positivity, and it’s contagious. It was a rich tonic to be in a space with a couple thousand people who are dedicated to climate action, who can simultaneously understand the doomsday but are not sinking from it.
Anyway, as a part of this experience, I’m now trained to give my version of the official Climate Reality Slide Show. (So if you want me to talk to your group, ideally for a 15 minutes or so, let me know.) I think I can give a damn effective presentation about climate change that will leave folks informed, less scared, and empowered. This presentation has nothing to do with the science that happens in my lab, but that’s not where I’d want to start if I only have a small amount of time to talk to the public about climate change.
I think a lot of scientists have trouble communicating about climate change because our own research is about such a tiny piece of the puzzle. I mean, if I were to tell you about the thermal ecology of ants, for example, it’s hard to connect the dots to making sure your government will do the right thing. I brought a couple ideas home from this training about how to think about my identity as a research scientist and communicating about climate change. First, we don’t always have to connect the dots. Just asking about climate change in an everyday context is important, even if it’s not about political action. When I’m talking about my research with the public, I can communicate about climate change without making it the focal point of the storyline. Just including climate change as a side character can be more than enough. Second, I recognize that it’s totally fine for me to formally talk about the science and policy of global warming without bringing my own science into the picture. If I get half an hour to talk with the public, then I can talk about climate change and not even mention my own research at all. I can just talk about climate change like any other citizen, and if my identity as a scientist gets thrown into the mix, that’s fine, but it doesn’t have to be front and center.