Scientific warnings about the risks of unchecked global warming have reached a crescendo in the past couple of years, with urgent messages from researchers on social media, in congressional testimony, and even directly in the text of research papers.
The trend of sharper warnings and strong calls for climate action in peer-reviewed studies is reinforcing the voice of the growing climate protest movement. And that has the potential to push society to a tipping point that results in more government action.
Climate scientists say their research findings are so conclusive that it’s almost impossible to stay silent. But perhaps the biggest reason the warnings are growing more urgent is because there’s so little time left to act. Global greenhouse gas emissions need to drop to zero by 2050 to reach the goal of capping the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Yet since the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2015, emissions have continued to rise and most governments have avoided meaningful climate action. All these factors have led a growing number of climate researchers to intensify their messaging in any way they can.
“What you’re seeing is the most recent symptom of a sea change over the last eight years,” atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech, told Earther. “I think there was distinct shift about seven or eight years ago, when we went from saying, ‘isn’t this interesting,’ to saying, ‘oh, shit, we’re fucked.’’
Georgia Tech climate researcher Kim Cobb said she decided to start making her warnings more clear after witnessing first-hand the death of the coral reef ecosystem at Kiribati, detailed in her February 2019 testimony to the House Natural Resources Committee.
“You can see evidence of it in speech patterns as scientists communicate with the public,” Cobb told Earther. “There’s none of this business we used to have of, ‘well, ‘I’m not a policy expert.’ People are digging their stake in the ground and saying here are a couple of options.”
Beyond the increasingly dire findings, Hayhoe also traced the trend of more direct warnings and calls to action to a 2013 study that concluded climate scientists were systematically erring on the side of caution. She said after that, her “colleagues started saying, ‘people need to know this, we need to reach out because people are not getting this.’”
Beyond the increasing knowledge of the risks climate change poses, there’s also an understanding in the research community and the general public to counteract heavy handed fossil fuel propaganda. Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann said more frequent warnings in research papers are part of the scientific pushback against disinformation spread by the fossil fuel industry.
Along with several colleagues, including social scientists, he proposed a systematic framework for “researchers to differentiate legitimate critical engagement from bad-faith harassment,” to enable factual dialogue.
“I do think that the science has become more affirmative with respect to the potential for rapid ice sheet collapse and impacts of climate change on extreme weather events,” he told Earther. That has led researchers “becoming more affirmative both in their scientific writing, and in their public commentary.”
That urgency in the scientific literature may seem academic, but it actually has very serious ramifications outside the pages of journals. Precise warning language could also be important in climate lawsuits playing out in courtrooms around the world, making it harder for governments to avoid being held accountable for their inaction, and harder for fossil fuel companies to dodge responsibility for the harm their products cause.
“The fact that scientists think action is necessary, may be useful in an expert witness cross examination… the warnings and the increased certainty does increase the likelihood that these arguments will pass muster,” Michael Burger, director of the Sabin Centre for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told Earther.
At the same time, there’s also a generational shift in the climate research community that has partially driven the new tone in climate science communication. That holds especially true for younger scientists who started their careers in the years when the serious global warming risks were already obvious, leaving them to wonder why more isn’t already being done. Ben van der Pluijm, editor of the journal Earth’s Future, said a new generation of climate scientists are sharpening the tone of scientific warnings because they’re frustrated and concerned about their own future.
“Around the end of the ‘90s the basics were understood,” van der Pluijm told Earther.
“We didn’t know all the details, but we were done with understanding the broad framework of climate science.” The solution—cutting greenhouse gas emissions—is also well understood, but there has been hardly any implementation of policy to reach that goal, he added.
Younger scientists are thinking about the short-term future in a practical way, offering suggestions on what might work to drive policy directly in their research. Texas A&M researcher Andrew Dessler said he also thinks younger scientists are tackling the climate issue with increased urgency because they’ll be forced to live with the world’s choices today for the rest of their lives.
“I can see a shift in my students, a clear shift in concern about environmental issues,” he told Earther. “They’ve grown up with the idea that [the] environment is something we need to protect. Younger people are less jaded and not as worn out. They have more skin in the game then we do.”
Young researchers also have less of a reason to follow the trends and rules of the scientists who have come before them. That can be both liberating in how they talk about climate change and how they expect the world could act. Paradoxically, the decades of global inaction could be convincing older researchers to try something new.
“For me, I’m still relatively young and maybe too hopeful that things will change,” Sarah Connors, a senior science officer with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told Earther. “But if I was an older scientist, who had been working for decades on a climate related topic, seeing very little progress, then I think I would start speaking out more as well.”
The recent report from the IPCC warning of the dangers of heating the world past 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) is a textbook example of that. The report broke through with massive media coverage after scientists—including many senior researchers—used stark language to describe the risks humanity faces as well as what the solutions look like.
Daniel Swain, a climate researcher with UCLA and the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, addresses the issue of scientist warnings at the top of Twitter profile, pinning a tweet saying it’s OK to shout fire in a crowded theatre when the theatre is actually on fire.
Are #climate scientists alarmist? Well, we're certainly alarmed. But that's different. The thing about shouting "fire" in a crowded theater is that it makes total sense if the theater is actually on fire. When it comes to #ClimateChange, that's essentially where we are right now. pic.twitter.com/7KYgRgVopc
— Daniel Swain (@Weather_West) December 6, 2018
“Imagine a 90s-era disaster movie in which NASA scientists warn that there’s a giant asteroid headed for Earth,” Swain told Earther. “Except, instead of conscripting Bruce Willis to go blow up the incoming threat, President Morgan Freeman decides that the building the civilisation-saving rockets would be too expensive. That’s kind of how it feels to be a climate scientist right now.”
That the warnings are falling mostly on deaf ears could be adding to their increasingly urgent nature. In the past few years, right wing nationalist governments that downplay or outright deny climate science have emerged around the world. The U.S. and Brazil are the headliners, but Australia, Russia, and many of the Gulf States have also played large roles in stalling international climate action.
The rise of Germany’s far-right AfD party, which rejects established global warning science, shows that climate denial is gaining ground elsewhere as well. Olaf Eisen, co-editor of the EGU journal The Cryosphere, said these political warning signs have pushed scientists to sound the alarm, particularly as the time for action gets shorter with each passing year.
The recent focus on identifying the relative impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2 degrees Celsius of warning has also spurred a new sub-genre of research papers into which warnings about the need for action fit quite well. For example, Eisen told Earther the latest science suggests that at the lower level of warning, most of the Greenland ice sheet will remain intact while at 2 degrees Celsius warming, “it will slowly start to disappear in the next centuries, with profound impact on sea level rise.”
The imminent danger to society has also led some scientists to go beyond including warnings in their papers or on Twitter. When thousands of Austrians gathered last spring to march for climate action, Helga Kromp-Kolb, one of Austria’s leading climate scientists, was at the head of a group of scientists participating in the Fridays For Future demonstration.
“The issues we’re demonstrating for, climate change and biodiversity loss, these are issues that are relevant for the survival of civilisation,” she told Earther. “So actually, all of us should be here putting pressure on our governments to finally do the necessary things to ensure the survival of humanity.”
Bob Berwyn is a freelance journalist with a focus on the environment.