Treading the Fine Line Between Climate Talk and Alarmism (Op-Ed)
Sarah Myhre and her Earth history activity for "Meet a Scientist" public engagement events at the Pacific Science Center, Seattle.
Credit: Sarah Myhre

In May 2017, I spoke about climate change, something I had done often, but this was unique. It was the first time I spoke about the issue with a faith-based community. The talk was a contribution to a springtime "Earth Care" ministry series. I dressed conservatively, and I brought only an activity I use for educating kids at a science museum in Seattle – a hands-on lesson in stratigraphy, superposition and geologic time. No slide deck. No computer. No data. I came to talk about climate change, Earth's history, and public trust and decision-making around the issue.

My prepared remarks quickly were tossed aside, as my presentation became a conversation with the 20 church members. We talked about values, our love of the Pacific Northwest, our shared commitment to steward the Earth and care for those in most need. I spoke about my views as a scientist — about the risks of unchecked greenhouse gas pollution to our planet, our home, and to future generations.

I confessed to the group that my politics often lean left of center, and yet my grandparents, particularly my maternal grandfather, were conservative. So, I value the role of conservative voices in American politics, and I identify with those voices. And yet, the acceptance of the basic science of climate change has cleaved across partisan lines — a political reality that would have my grandfather, a construction engineer and businessman, aghast and angered. [The Reality of Climate Change: 10 Myths Busted]

I am a fifth-generation Washingtonian. While I do not lay claim to the identity of the Pacific Northwest, which, frankly, should be reserved for the peoples of, say, the Tulalip Tribe and the Nooksack Tribe, I do identify with and love this land of mountaintop archipelagos, cold rivers and steep, deep skiing. We in the Pacific Northwest are not exempt from the physical disruptions that come with climate change.

As an example, the city of Seattle is planning for average annual temperatures to increase within a range of 1.5 to 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 to 3 degrees Celsius) by the 2040s, with summer temperatures increasing by as much as 7.9 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 degrees Celsius), according to the Seattle Climate Action Plan. And neighboring Vancouver can expect summer temperatures by the 2050s to be somewhere between those of present-day Seattle and San Diego.

Now, we, collectively, need to make decisions around the highest temperature projections. This is because, when we talk about carbon emission scenarios and climate sensitivity, we are ultimately talking about future risk management. The highest cost in public health and public resources will come with risk associated with the warmest possible futures — and this should be where we focus our attention. 

Climate concerns are not just about temperature. Big pieces of the Earth's system also change when we alter the global carbon cycle through adding a heat-trapping greenhouse gas "blanket" to the atmosphere. For us in the Pacific Northwest, this means that our snowpack and mountain recreation lifestyles are vulnerable; our rivers of salmon and eagles are vulnerable; and our cold coastlines and marine economies are vulnerable. Put simply, our water and our people are at risk.

We have a lot to lose in the face of unchecked climate warming. Not to be too personal, but have you been to San Diego lately? I would be a different person had I grown up in the heat and glamor of Southern California, rather than in cold, dark, rainy Seattle.

As my talk came to its end, a quiet man in his mid-50s spoke up, slowly and measuredly. He told me, "You know, no one wants to be called an alarmist. But it is OK to sound the alarm on this."

I heard this man's kind words and slumped back into my chair, my heart pierced by this plain-spoken and unvarnished advice. I have chosen to walk a tightrope as a public scholar, by turning toward the immense challenge of communicating the terrifying and heartbreaking (and I mean those words specifically) risks that come with climate change.

Like most scientists, the last thing that I want is to be called is an alarmist. To be an alarmist smacks of everything we are trained to avoid as academics — ideology, magical thinking, self-inflation, ego (to be sure, I am still working on all these pieces). This advice from a stranger in a church in Everett, Washington, vented a pressure valve in my mind — this impossible bind between communicating alarming information and deeply eschewing the "alarmist" public role. The late Steve Schneider wrote about the double ethical bind of communicating both effectively and honestly as a scientist, and described it as "no-win scenario." Based on my experience in the public eye, and specifically as a female academic, I agree.

What is our role in public leadership as scientists? I would suggest a few action items: Work to reduce risk and cost for the public; steward the public's interest in evidence; and be steady and committed to the scientific process of dissent, revision and discovery. This means communicating risk when necessary. We would never fault an oncologist for informing patients about the cancer risks that come with smoking. Why would we expect Earth scientists to be any different, when we're just as certain?

As a public scholar with expertise in paleoclimate science, I communicate alarming, difficult information about the consequences to Earth and ocean systems that have come with past events of abrupt climate warming. As the saying goes, the past is the key to the future. [6 Unexpected Effects of Climate Change]

Here is the rub about being a trusted public source of information – you cannot just be a content expert. You must also be a person. To earn trust in the public eye, you have to disclose your conflicts of interest. You must embrace transparency. You must articulate the limits of your expertise. You must come to see the line separating evidence and your own ideology. And I think this transparency made it possible for me to build trust with a suburban community of faith — to talk about this truly alarming information.

The challenge is ― how do we do this work better? As scientists, we must build a coherent, evidence-based communication plan to participate in public dialogue across an acrimonious, partisan, human landscape — because it is a shark tank out there, especially for younger, untenured (and marginalized) academics.

We are living through a crisis of trust between the American public and climate scientists, and we must extend ourselves, as scientists and public servants, to rebuild transparency and trust with the public. I will start: I want the global community to mitigate the extreme risk of the warmest future climate scenarios. And, I want my kid to eat salmon and ski with his grandkids in the future. I am invested in that cooler, safer, more sustainable future — for your kids and for mine. Just don't call me an alarmist.

Original article on Live Science.