I’ve said it before and I will say it again: panicking won’t solve the climate crisis.
Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old climate activist who has now been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for sparking the worldwide school strikes against climate, deserves credit for having guts. But she only tells one side of a complicated story. In a viral speech delivered at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, Thunberg told the world to panic. Under no circumstances should policy decisions be made in a panic. This is bad business.
I have spent the past months researching how people feel about climate change and the sentiment of the pack is clear: we are scared. I do not wish to follow the lead of a frenzied herd.
Which demons will be brought into the world in the name of sustainability and at the expense of whom? Already, toxic waste from the lithium batteries used in electric cars is clogging up landfills and polluting water sources. Children are forced to labour in cobalt mines in some places to fuel the panic-buying of zero emissions mobiles in others. Climate change is scary, but so is the prospect of job insecurity if you work in oil, aviation, or fast fashion. Climate change badly alienates many. If we are not careful, then systems of inequality could be as much maintained by climate change as by other dominant forces.
Imagine walking into a therapist’s consultation room in a state of high agitation, flapping and blubbering about the end of your world as you know it. In your uncontrollable fear, you will loop your thoughts endlessly in a bid to find a solution to the wrong problem. There is nothing humans hate more than uncertainty. If the therapist is good at their job, they will calm you down before guiding you towards a reassessment of your situation.
Fear is powerful within the individual, but its driving force is almost unstoppable once it grips the masses. The narrative of fear and panic surrounding climate change is a mighty force—one which we must stop for a moment to consider the matter with a little wisdom.
There are aspects of the situation, beyond impending doom, that people should understand, particularly when it comes to expert climate knowledge. Climate change is already a politicised and institutionalised beast. We need to get a better grip on how climate change plays out in the hands of experts and leaders. I am sorry to tell you that they have some answers, but not all of them. Thunberg railed against world leaders and climate experts for their inaction, yet scientists and politicians have been working their arses off for decades trying to better understand the problem. It must feel a little unfair.
Many in our modern society rarely question scientific knowledge. Ideas like consensus and uncertainty might need to be better understood by those of us who don’t generate climate models on a daily basis. We cannot expect models to be certain, because no one on this planet (to the best of my knowledge) has ever lived the future. To gather a deeper understanding of expert scientific climate knowledge, I asked researcher Scott Bremer, an expert on experts at the University of Bergen, what exactly scientific consensus on climate change is.
Bremer, who studies the way we produce science on climate change, thinks that scientists need to get smarter at communicating the uncertainty around their climate knowledge. I do not remember ‘Climategate’ a decade ago because I was drunk at my first year of university, but Bremer reminds me about the email leaks from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU). The leaks led to climate sceptics roaring about climate change conspiracy theories across the internet. The sceptics had seen words like ‘uncertainty’ flying through the documents and had got fired up. They were misguided, but then, perhaps it is only fair to expect confusion from people who do not speak the language of climate science. Few of us do. Bremer patiently explains uncertainty and consensus within climate science to me like this,
“Science should be open and honest about what it’s doing, what it knows, what it doesn’t know. That is a pillar of modern science. If we start to see [uncertainty] being hidden from the public, then that erodes credibility. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, uses peer review and consensus to establish credibility. I believe in the consensus model, in some ways it’s probably the best we can do, but some people think it hides the uncertainties or opens up opportunities for political games.”
Bremer is right, we do not need to be babied about climate change any more than we need to indulge blindly in climate martyrdom. What worked so well with Thunberg’s speech is that it woke us up from our sleepy dependency on expert culture. In many ways, I applaud her approach. There is always value in sticking your head above the crowd and speaking up, it just doesn’t need to be synonymous with a sustained state of panic.
Climate change is caused by human activity, it is happening right now, and is a huge threat to lifestyles and lives around the world. We do need experts who work hard to make the world a safer place, but we also need to understand better how they work and why. Realising that climate scientists and politicians cannot do all the work for us is like that moment when you realise your parents are people too. Most of us are just doing our best. There are no easy answers, climate change, like life, is hard. But you know what’s harder? Trying to solve a massive problem with your knickers in a twist.