May 26, 2024

Do you find climate dumping funny? Do you think it is a laughing matter that we are on track to bequeath to our children and their children a planet that has changed beyond recognition? I don’t – and I’m sure neither do the presenters of Radio 4’s Today programme. But I couldn’t help feeling we had a bit of a Don’t look up for a moment yesterday, heard them brush out predictions by top climate scientists that our world will end up at least 2.5C warmer than depressing and “gloomy”. This is not to say that laughter and grim news cannot or should not go together. I work with comedians to help convey the climate crisis message, but we use humor to aid understanding and to help cope, not to demean and mock.

The truth is that most people, including many professional journalists, and most politicians, don’t really get a climate meltdown. This partly reflects a head-in-the-sand attitude, but mainly it indicates a poor understanding of how bad things are going to be.

Let’s talk about that future. In interviews with some of the world’s most famous scientists in the Guardian this week, around 80% said they expected the global average temperature to rise to at least 2.5C above pre-industrial times this century. Many have envisioned a “semi-dystopian” future in which blistering temperatures and increasingly extreme weather drive famine, war and migration on a biblical scale.

A number of studies point to severe climate-driven economic setbacks in the decades ahead, and one analysis predicts social collapse as soon as 2040 if current trends continue. But for everyone to understand the dire need we are in, climate scientists have a duty to make their fears public, not just in surveys or behind closed doors; not to give everyone the screaming abdabs, but to give an accurate picture of the grim future we face and to maximize awareness and understanding. No one wants to leave people frozen in fear, like rabbits caught in headlights. But to drive the widespread action needed to tackle the climate emergency, everyone must understand the depths of our predicament, and the reality of the colossal challenges we face in the decades ahead.

There are other possible reasons for our collective denial about climate collapse, and journalists are not the only ones guilty of it. A few years back I wrote a open letter to the climate science community, urging everyone to shout from the rooftops what they have been whispering in private. At the time, too many scientists working in the field kept their heads down, perhaps understandably worried that a fuss would risk being shot down by peers, losing prestige, pinching funding and shutting down opportunities for advancement. The lack of involvement was often excused by the belief that it was the job of scientists to faithfully record the facts, and not get involved in politics or the public.

A wild fire near Alexandroupolis, Greece, in August 2023. Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Fortunately, there has been a big change in recent years, thanks in part to the formation of high-profile groups such as Scientist Rebellion, so that many scientists are now joining protests and even being arrested. Research in the journal Nature revealed 90% of climate scientists in 2021 said they were involved in some form of public engagement. But climate scientists as a tribe – and I include myself here – still don’t make enough noise or cause enough kerfuffles.

We must be seen to also step on the climate. Individual actions can only go so far, but they can play a role in reducing emissions, and we must lead by example. As scientists, we can do better with the day-to-day things, like thinking twice the next time we’re invited to give a talk on the other side of the planet, or deciding not to eat the juicy steak at the free buffet not to choose. Above all, we must get involved where possible and tell the truth. Those of you who still cared to keep your heads under the parapet, think again. The time to worry about what your colleagues might think of you is long gone. Academic progress will not change the fate of your children and grandchildren one bit. And as for any concerns you may still have about a hit to funding, remember: there are no grant award boards on a dead planet.

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