Thinking Out Loud: Climate Change

(Yes, the title is a shameless reference to my favorite current era singer! I haven’t decided yet whether or not this is going to become its own section of my blog.) I’m sure we’ve all had frustrating conversations at some point with hardened “climate deniers” (I’m not sure I like that term, though, as it seems to put a divisive label on an already divided situation). I know it’s something I still regularly face, and if I’m honest, fair or not, I take a lot of it on myself. I think “maybe if I just explained this better…” I’d go as far as to say I feel shame that I know some of these people up close. I feel like I’m not doing my job as a science communicator.

Recently, a conversation with a friend reopened, and I’m grateful for that. It’s led me to pontificate about where the divide is, and to better understand the gap in understanding. This meant that awhile ago, I had to first identify my own gaps in understanding! I don’t think this can be understated: even if you find yourself on the “right side” of science, you should always appraise your actual knowledge level on a subject in which you choose to converse. I’m not saying you have to be an expert, merely that you know you’re not an expert. This leads less to debate and more to conversations of shared pursuit of knowledge, if you and the other party can humble yourselves to engage honestly with each other.

So, here’s my disclaimer: I’m not a climate scientist. I have worked with climate data, and thus have a basic understanding of climatic data and methodology. My dissertation was themed on climate change, so I have read all the “classic climate change papers,” and am beginning to understand climate models and scenarios (though I certainly haven’t built any myself). Thus, I’m not actively doing anything to further climate science, and I’m not involved in it hands-on. I’m merely an end-user of climate change projections, not a creator of them.

Here’s what I do know: I had 2 climate scientists on my dissertation committee, one of whom I especially talked with often in the course of our project. I learned a lot from him, and from a Climate Change Biology course I took during my time as a Ph.D. student. The climate scientist on our grant is a co-author on all my papers (from my dissertation, incl. 1 in review) so far, so he contributed to my knowledge of climate scenarios, especially for the regions of our analyses.

Here’s what I’ve learned from my conversations with those who don’t believe in human-caused climate change: the #1 hangup seems to be the drastic climate shifts our Earth has undergone in its history. A degree of warming seems to be nothing compared to the ice age melting! How can we possibly attribute that blip on the radar to humans, when the Earth has changed so dramatically in the past, before humans could have had anything to do with it?

Here’s what I have learned: What’s behind that question/challenge to climate change reads to me as such: “the atmosphere is vast and dynamic, and things have been changing long before we were even here, so perhaps this is beyond even our understanding.” I’ve been generally interested in science as long as I can remember, because it tells us “how things work.” So of course, I’ve wanted to approach all of this scientifically by better understanding the climate system. I took a storytelling class, in which the speaker claimed we “botched the narrative” for climate change, and I thought, that couldn’t be truer! I thought that because the mechanisms behind climate change are actually pretty simple, so we’ve done a bad job of telling the story. I’m actually going to (lazily) leave it right here because I don’t think it’s my job to re-explain why climate change is human-influenced. Many more qualified have come before me to do that in cooler ways. I just sought to share my personal experiences with climate change dialogues, and what I’ve learned so far in navigating it.

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