Michael Lemonick is a former senior science writer at Time Magazine, the senior staff writer at Climate Central, and the lead author of Global Weirdness, a new book that attempts to lay out, in simple terms, what scientists do and don’t know about climate change. We spoke with him this week about climate change and his approach to science journalism.
Why did you write Global Weirdness?
Thomas Friedman wrote this column bemoaning the harsh rhetoric back and forth about climate change — all the conflicting information people were sending out and how confusing it all was. He said that the world’s greatest climate experts should sit down in a room and write a 50-page book that explains what we know and how we know it in language a sixth-grader could understand.
At Climate Central, we were interested, because the idea was very much in keeping our mission, which is to steer clear of rhetoric and hype and be faithful to the science and just talk about what climate science is telling us and be honest about what we don’t know and admit uncertainties where they exist.
In the book you seem to bend over backwards to acknowledge every area of scientific doubt. Was it difficult to write that way?
It was very easy for me, because I get really uncomfortable when people emphasize one aspect of the science and de-emphasize the parts that don’t advance the mission. You see it in stories about climate, and also in stories about medicine. There’s a pressure to make this seem as important as possible, because otherwise, why am I writing about it? And when you mix in actual advocacy with an issue like climate change, it gets even stronger.
So you take things that you think are plausible and you say that they’re true. And you take things that are complicated and you pretend that they’re simple. And you come out with numbers and tell people all the horrible things that could happen and you don’t maybe mention that it’s a worst-case scenario. And you use the word “could” and act like that absolves you of responsibility. And I’ve never been comfortable with that in part because it can come back to haunt you.
For example: in 1998, 2000, the rate of warming slowed down. This was something that climate scientists expected to happen at some point, because climate is not simple and there are many forces acting on it.
But when we journalists wrote about climate change, and when scientists talked to popular audiences, they would draw a straight line, going upward. Then we got to a point where we were still putting more carbon dioxide in the system but the temperature wasn’t rising that fast.
And people who were trying to undermine the science could then say, “See! It’s not rising. They said it was going to rise. They lied! They’re wrong!” So by oversimplifying the story we set ourselves up for criticism that wasn’t really valid, but it sure is persuasive.
My feeling was that we do know enough, and what we know is solid enough, that even with all the qualifications it will be clear that climate change is a real danger. Doing it this way, we inoculate ourselves against charges of leaving stuff out.
Another example I worry about is this: We’ve had a very hot summer this summer, and there have been millions of stories about how it’s the hottest summer ever, and the hottest month ever. If by chance we get a cold summer next summer, this will be a huge opening for climate skeptics to say “Ha! You can’t trust anything they say!” And I worry about that, because I really do care that people get this and retain it for the long term rather than read a story today that says it’s getting hotter, than a story next year that says it’s colder, and not come out with any actual understanding.
It does seem as though implicit in your approach is a basic optimism in reader’s capacity to handle complicated ideas and a lot of uncertainty.
I know, and there’s some evidence that they’re not very good at that. There are all sorts of different theories about how you should do this, and one theory says you should just scare people as much as possible.
I imagine you read Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone piece from several weeks ago. That was terrifying. Did you find it problematic in the ways you’re talking about?
Yes, I thought it was.
The story suggested that if we want to stay under a 2-degree Celsius increase, we can only put so much more CO2 into the atmosphere, and we know that if we burn the proven reserves that energy companies already have we’ll exceed that cap. What’s wrong with that frame?
That argument is flawed in the sense that we don’t actually know for sure how much of a temperature increase is caused by a specific amount of C02. And the range of numbers that people have thrown out there is pretty wide. It could be at the low end. It could be at the high end. It could be higher than the high end!
This is a problem that I have with McKibben generally: he takes a number that some scientist has said is an important number, and he’ll run with it, as though he has now got the number.
Another problem is that if you go to people and say “The situation is so bad that we’re already in a horrible position, and people look at what’s required to get us out of it, which is a huge transformation of the way we live,” the reaction for many people is “What’s the point? I can’t do anything about this. We can’t transform our whole world overnight, so practically speaking, there’s nothing we can do.” And they give up, and I don’t think that’s a great thing either.
So we should remain hopeful enough to work for changes because we don’t know enough to be resigned to our doom yet?
Right. And also because no matter what course we’re on, it’s never too late to start trying to change it. Once we’ve admitted carbon to the atmosphere it’s going to stay there for a long time and keep warming the planet for hundreds of years, and whether or not we exceed a particular threshold at a particular time, the faster we can get a handle on this stuff the better, no matter whether it’s “fast enough” or not.
The two-degree threshold, that has no scientific meaning at all. It’s purely a bureaucratic diplomatic number that people picked because they had to pick something. There’s no scientific reason to say we’re screwed if we go over that number, and there’s no scientific reason to say we’re not if we don’t.
This book is also in dialogue with all the junk science put out by the extraction industries. How did that influence how you wrote it?
The truth is, climate-skeptic arguments are very persuasive. They’re simple, they’re resonant, and they make good common sense. Some people who write about climate get angry about these arguments and dismiss them as ignorant and stupid and deliberate attempts to mislead (which they are, in many cases).
But what I try to do is think about the average person I talk to in a given day and what their understanding is. When someone raises those arguments to me, I don’t say “That is so stupid! You are so ignorant! Shut up!” What I try to say, and what I say in the book is, “That’s a really good point. That makes lots of sense. The sun gives us all our warmth, that’s the first place you’d look if things are warming up or cooling down. Great point, scientists think so too. They went and looked at it, and got the data, and this is what it shows: It turns out not to be true. But good thought!”
One of the things that’s so hard about explaining climate change is that the level of understanding required to satisfy oneself about the issue is so high that none of us can ever be certain, right? None of us have actually run the computer models. Does that knowledge threshold make it a unique problem?
I don’t think so. If you talk about smoking and disease, when you get right down to it, no one has ever proven that a single case of lung cancer was caused by smoking. But that’s not the important thing to remember. The important thing is “don’t smoke because it causes lung cancer.” Not a proven fact, but close enough.
But a difference between smoking and climate change right now is that climate change has gotten rolled into all these broader political and cultural identities. People feel personally invested in rejecting the scientific findings a priori. What do you do about that?
The Surgeon General first issued a report in 1964 saying smoking causes cancer and you shouldn’t do it. If at some point in the 1960s someone had tried to pass a regulation saying “no more smoking in airplanes,” or in hotels, restaurants, or public places, there would have been such an outpouring of rage it was inconceivable that that could ever happen. It was tied up with other things as well: people’s rights. “It’s my body, the government can’t tell me what to do with it.” To say nothing of the disinformation from tobacco companies.
And yet somehow, today those things have all happened and there’s very little public outcry about it. People just accept that this is a good thing. What happened was there was a steady public education about this over the intervening decades, to the point where it’s become socially unacceptable to smoke in public.
It’s conceivable that a public education campaign about climate — not people screaming — could contribute to a similar public transformation, to the point where people might feel it’s socially unacceptable to emit carbon. I’m not saying it will happen or it will happen easily or how it will happen, but that’s what it might take.
We’re talking about decisions that have to be taken collectively — globally, really. Do earthlings today have the sort of capacity for collective decision-making to take those steps?
I don’t think we do. But individual countries like the US and China, countries that put out a lot of CO2, can reach these decisions independently on a parallel track. The Chinese are worried about global warming, they’re just more worried about development at this point.
Towards the end of the book, you address geoengeneering, strategies for controlling global warming by seeding the clouds with sea-water to make them extra white and reflective, or dumping huge amounts of iron in the oceans to encourage the growth of carbon-eating algae. Are we supposed to take those ideas seriously?
Nobody knows if there’s promise there. The idea is that if things get bad enough we’ll probably be willing to try anything. And there are people who say, “Look, rather than getting to that point, going crazy and then trying everything, we should at least start looking at this now and looking at how it might work, whether it could be effective, whether the side effects would be too great. Because if we get backed into a corner and we end up doing it, we should do it with some intelligence. And that I think is reasonable.
Some people who care about climate change say let’s not talk about it because we’re going to count on it and think it’s going to get us off the hook. Then there are others like me who say the unintended consequences of these things are almost always as bad. I don’t think this made it into the book — do you know about the horse manure crisis?
Do we have a horse manure crisis?
No, but in the 1890s, New York, especially, was in a mild panic because there were so many horses creating so much manure that the disposal process was becoming overwhelming. And someone made a projection that if things keep going this way and population keeps growing, the entire borough of Manhattan will be 10 feet deep in horse manure. We’ll be in big trouble! Then someone invented the automobile, and the crisis went away. But the automobile has created some problems of its own. So one of these geoengineering ideas may become an elegant technological solution to this crisis but could easily create other unintended consequences that could be as bad or worse.
Because you’re a science writer and we’re talking when we are, I was wondering if you had thoughts about Jonah Lehrer. Did you have a reaction as his saga unfolded?
Well, yes, but not a charitable one. In my experience journalists are subject to envy. So when somebody’s fantastically successful, you hope there’s something wrong there, just for your own ego. I had not actually read a lot of his stuff. I have read a lot of stuff by Malcolm Gladwell, who’s in a similar category. And I’ve read critiques of his work that make me very down on him — on Gladwell.
When you go to a movie and it flashes on the screen, “Based on a true story,” it drives me crazy, because what it means is, there’s some element of truth here, but it may be 1 percent.
A lot of Gladwell’s stuff is based on a true story, but isn’t necessarily a true story. People have persuaded me that he leaves stuff out if it doesn’t support his thesis. After talking about how I like to talk about climate, you can see that kind of goes against the grain with me. And Lehrer evidently does the same thing, and I find that truly offensive. Because he’s lying to people, to aggrandize himself, basically.
With Lehrer and Gladwell and the TED Talks, which also often get lumped in to this particular category of pop-science, you can hate them for being successful, but it seems they’re successful because people really like what they do more than they like the straight science reporting, right? We can blame them, but maybe they’re really just giving us what we want. Which goes back to the question of how to present global warming science: Are people really ready to be treated like grown-ups with this information?
Who knows? If I had set out to write Global Weirdness maxing out my credit cards and hoping the book would be huge, I would have been an idiot. I have no insight into whether people are ready for it or whether it will achieve what it’s meant to achieve, but I think it is reasonably intellectually honest.
You’ve been on the circuit, doing a lot of interviews lately for the book. In those interviews, what do you take away from the way people talk to you about this?
What I’ve taken away is that a lot of very intelligent and educated people know essentially nothing about climate change. And I have this experience when I talk to people at parties, and I have the same experience with interviewers who are really intelligent and well-read. I wrote my first story about climate change in 1987, and I’ve written a lot since, and so have a lot of other people, and not everyone reads Time magazine, but everyone reads the New York Times. They’ve covered it a lot, but still, you talk to an educated person and they don’t have a clue.
Is that an Upton Sinclair thing, that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it?” Is the problem that to really grasp climate science would force us to change more than we’re willing to?
I don’t think so. There may be an element of self-interest in people not understanding climate change, but I think there are just topics that people simply aren’t interested. They fundamentally don’t care.
I was doing an interview for another book about cosmology, and the interviewer asked, “Well, why is it important to know about the Big Bang and how the universe began,” and I started to go into “Oh, the origins of all matter” and blah blah blah, And I stopped and said “You know, if you don’t think it’s just really cool, there’s nothing I can do for you.”
If you were at a party and were talking about the new show at the museum of modern art, no one would say, “Art, why should I care, what’s the point?” You wouldn’t say that because even if I felt it, people would look at you as if you were an insect. That doesn’t exist for science, except for personal health. You can make practical arguments for why people should care, but the truth is, art moves people. It’s an emotional experience.
Science moves me. I think it’s just mind-blowing and awesome to learn about this stuff, whether it’s something completely impractical like the origin of the universe or something with serious and practical consequences.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.