Stop dehumanizing researchers and start using their emotions as important information
Supporting academics to speak their climate truth
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The climate crisis has always been an honesty crisis. A striking feature of our dishonest culture is the general lack of permission there’s been for talking about the climate crisis in emotional terms, particularly in highly influential places. Many scientists are extremely careful to not come off as a climate advocate or activist because they know they’d be punished for it, by having their research labelled as non-objective. This neutrality is achieved most easily by not speaking in energetically charged terms about the terrifying implications of climate disruption. Camille Parmesan, who has served as the lead author for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, explained to me in an interview for my forthcoming book, “The scientists that I know of who become activists, their research is still very unbiased, very rigorous. But I've met enough politicians or staffers who say ‘well we can't listen to what so and so says because everyone knows that they are on the side of climate change disaster.’ So hearing that my whole research life, I've been really careful to not be viewed as an advocate by the people I'm hoping my research will influence.”
It is completely understandable that a scientist wants their research to make its way into policy so it will affect some positive change in the world, and therefore they do what they must to protect it. I mean to cast no shade at all onto Parmesan here. But the dehumanization of scientists in the halls of power, which denies that they can both be real people who have emotions about what they find out and simultaneously be working from impartial evidence, reflects a wider taboo inside our culture which says that some truths should not be named. How are average people with relatively limited scientific knowledge supposed to confidently support the grave implications of this research, when scientists can’t speak their full truth?
The stakes are too high for us researchers to play that game of politeness and “correctness” anymore. In this spirit, I am reposting below a recent article by Bill McGuire, fellow Substack writer and Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL. In his piece, McGuire calls upon all climate scientists to raise their voices with fervent moral clarity on this issue, as well as shed their professional hangups about being judged by colleagues for being too alarmist.
Speaking to my fellow academics for a moment, I would like to extend McGuire’s call out to all researchers, not just climate scientists. From the mental health and health investigators, to the political scientists, education scholars, humanities folks, and many more who touch the climate crisis in our work, please hear this: it is time to step out of “our lane” and follow the heart of our research as much as its brain. Get expressive in your department meetings. Be an advocate at your institution. And most importantly, get outside of the ivory tower to push for change. Our egos aren’t what need protecting - the present and future is, and we need a radical proactive social tipping point if we are to do any of that.
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash
An open letter to all climate scientists
Time to tell it like it is
by Bill McGuire, author of Cool Earth
OK. Let's not beat about the bush. While our world has been going to hell in a handcart, many of you studying and recording its demise have had nothing to say on the subject and have remained deep in the shadows, when what has been needed is for you to hog the limelight. The cod justification you have used is always the same, muttered excuses about the need for objectivity, about how you shouldn't become involved in politics, about how you are merely faithful recorders of facts; a silo mentality that shields you from having to make difficult decisions or engage with others outside your comfort zones. You know who you are.
In truth, the reason you have never liked to stick your head above the parapet is for fear of being shot at by your peers. As a fellow scientist I understand that – I really do. There is nothing worse than being ridiculed within your own community. It can, I know, mean loss of prestige, a squeeze on funding, and a closing down of opportunities for advancement. I understand, therefore, why you continue to play down anything that might draw attention, why you lie low, tow the party line. I know, too, what you really think and feel about climate change, because I have talked to many of you in private, and the response – without exception – has been that the true situation is far worse than you are prepared to admit in public. So, behind the facade, I know that you are torn between speaking out and holding back, that you are as desperate as anyone for the measures to be taken that the science demands. Most of all, I know that you fear, as much as anybody else, for your children's future in the world of climate chaos they will be forced to inhabit.
So, what to do. I don't need to tell you that the chasm between what is needed to tackle the climate emergency, and what measures are actually being taken, flags the extraordinary scale of the uphill battle we face. If we are not to bequeath to our descendents a desiccated, lifeless, hothouse, then we need your help, your support. Now. Today. The time to worry about what your colleagues think of you is long gone. Prestige will mean nothing in the world to come, academic advancement won't alter the fate of your children and grandchildren one iota. So, speak out, tell it like it is. Force those who need to know to listen. Welcome any flack and hurl it back ten-fold. Come down off the fence and choose the path you know, in your heart of hearts, is the right one.
Bill McGuire is Professor Emeritus of Geophysical & Climate Hazards at UCL and was a contributor to the IPCC 2012 SREX report on Climate Change & Extreme Events and Disasters. His novel, Skyseed - an ecothriller about climate engineering gone wrong - is published by The Book Guild.
*thank you to Dr Charlie Gardner for bringing this post to my attention
Up next time: a collaboration between Gen Dread and the All We Can Save Project for working with climate emotions. Can’t wait to share it with you!
I’ll leave you with an unpaid promo from a new climate podcast:
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