Considerations | What Climate Change Data?

by Dr. Matt Ritter

I am a scientist. We, brethren of the lab coat, crazy hair, and boring lecture, speak and write in the cold hard language of facts and data. We observe the world, test hypotheses and draw conclusions based on data. I study plants and ecosystems in California. I am not a climate change scientist, but like many scientists who are not climate scientists, I’m continually drawn into discussions about our uncertain future, the changing climate, and the environmental catastrophe it’s creating. Unlike many of my colleagues, I’ve turned to writing fiction as a way to engage people about that uncertainty.

As a professor, I am also surrounded by eighteen to twenty-two-year-olds, most of whom are worried about the future. They’ve been told in the news, in their classes, in their assigned readings, and by their crazy uncle’s forwarded emails, that terrible things are coming. Unprecedented change is afoot, but we’re not sure quite what form that change will take, and we don’t know what to do about it.

Although there’s plenty of confusion and ambiguity about our future, here’s what we know now: Anthropogenic climate change is real and it’s now upon us. There’s more carbon dioxide in the air now than at any time in the 200,000-year history of our species. The planet is warmer—nobody but the most ignorant and belligerent among us argues this. The last four years were the four hottest on record, and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Those facts haven’t been controversial in the scientific community for decades. We stuck a thermometer in the turkey and found it’s cooked. End of story.

All of this makes for global climate chaos, which exacerbates ecological destruction. Since the rise of human civilization, we’ve taken more than three quarters of all wild mammals and half of all the trees. By the end of this century, it’s possible that we’ll drive two-thirds of all species to extinction. In fact, we are in the midst of the planet’s sixth mass extinction event, with rates at a thousand times higher than expected.

Meanwhile, the human population is still growing, especially in poorer countries that are becoming increasingly urban. In fact, 2008 was the first year in which the urban population surpassed the world’s rural population size. Most humans now live in cities and are increasingly disconnected from the natural systems on which they depend.

We also know that these facts, and most facts for that matter, have become harder and harder for people to draw consensus on. Not because they are not facts, but because our society is sharply polarized and bathed in misinformation. Large contingents of Americans and news networks have picked a side and a tribe and defend it with unwavering conviction.

As the Enlightenment fades, intellectual rigor, curiosity about complexity, and a willingness to hear dissenting opinions become rarer, while at the same time, the seemingly universal trait of having a strong, even if ill-informed, opinion on all issues, increases. Social media (better referred to as antisocial media) is a vast forum for polarization, hate, and confusion.

I do not believe that people are ignorant of the facts of climate chaos and environmental destruction, no matter what their Facebook and Twitter feeds communicate. Americans can feel the change in the culture, in the air, in the crowded roadways, and in the irregular weather. I do believe, however, that scientists are terrible at communication—climate change, specifically. Every few years, a new grim report emerges from the International Panel on Climate Change. It generates a day, maybe two (at best), of headlines and hashtags, and then is promptly ignored. All the scientists return to their labs. The necessary data and facts are there, but data and facts are not what matter to people. For everyone else, only stories hold court. Alex Jones and Rush Limbaugh are much better at convincing people of something, changing their hearts and minds, than all the scientists in the world. Stories, true or not, are what matter, and scientists are, as a rule, terrible at spinning them.

Being surrounded by worried college students on a daily basis tests your skills as a communicator. I haven’t begun to ignore facts and data—not by a long shot—but I have turned more to the story as a tool to capture the imagination, not because I believe in good and evil (I don’t), but because I believe in inspiration and engagement. I believe that an engaged student body, community, or population, is a powerful one. Engagement roots out truth from the darkest corners.

Stories prevail. Humans have always engaged with each other through stories. Not data, not facts. Even during the early emergence of human language, no group of cavemen crouched around a fire talking about how statistically unlikely it was to be eaten by a tiger. They weaved gruesome tales, myths, and legends of compatriots lost in the bloody jaws of monsters.

I’ll be the first to admit that writing a climate fiction novel, as I did recently, and of which is excerpted from below, is a deeply unscientific venture—but it is engaging. Imagine worst-case scenarios or best-case scenarios and what life is like under them. What if climate chaos were to grip us, not in a subtle, long-term way, but in an acute and terrifying way? What if it stopped raining tomorrow in the American Midwest, or in California, and didn’t precipitate again for a century? How would we respond? How would we want to respond? Can humanity shine in the face of chaos or would we eat each other alive?

“While Will and Zach slept on the floor of the old man’s trailer, clouds shuddered in the darkness on the Santa Lucias at the western edge of the Valley. It was from that purple and brooding wall that rain came each night. Up on the steep ridgeline, a forest of firs basked in moonlight above a gossamer of gloom, and silence prevailed, no bird song, no hum of insects, nor hooves sneaking across soft leaves. All gone.

Marine fog rolled down the east-facing slopes and mixed in the air with microscopic debris and man-made bacteria. Each night, the Valley basin filled with clouds that rung out like an old sponge. Artificial bacteria designed by forgotten scientists in their experiments gone wrong nucleated ice around every particle of Valley dust that fell from the sky in each rain. During their descent, the bacteria filled each raindrop with a foul-smelling airborne chemical deadly to humans, but neutralized in the soil within seconds.

Before sun up, water flowed off the thin flinty soils and scented shrubs of the hillsides to the riches of black mud and shapeless clumps of plowed earth on the Valley floor. The drinking water that squeezed through the deep soils into the Salinas River was once again pure. The rain affected neither the plants nor the soil fungi, so the diverse Valley crops prospered despite, and because of, each night’s toxic bathing. If such were not the case, Valley residents would have starved within weeks of the first deadly rains that ended the hundred years of drought. Instead, each morning the Valley soil took on deadly water at all sides and purified it as it ran toward the enduring river at its center.

Along the entire Valley border, out past the rolling low hills of the eastern Gabilans, a high wall ran through the dust, sagebrush, and dry grass. It was a wall without end, circling the Valley, neither beginning nor ending at any location, and broken only at the guarded border crossings. Lonely young men in poorly built lookout towers were perched along the wall, watching the sun rise and feeling the dry rattling desert breath howl in from the east. Beyond their sight, far past the golden horizon, stretched a dryness so complete that life could no longer be sustained in any of it. Dead stands of brittle creosote and the broken stems of burrobush stretched across vast expanses on the surface of what was once the western North American continent.”

Even in our reality, the data are incomplete and there are too many variables to predict any certain future. It is the dissemination of information, through stories, that can spark the human imagination of forging ideas about how each of us plays a role in our modern climate quandary, and how we might alter our habits, behavior, or beliefs in response to our new knowledge.

The future is uncertain; it always has been and always will be. We will never have all the answers. Fiction writing helps me think more clearly about the facts and data associated with our dubious environmental future. While the world gets hotter, more chaotic, and crowded, I’ll continue to wake up every day and do the best work I can—to work for the people around me, and to make my community better. I won’t descend into hedonisms (at least not totally), and I won’t allow myself to become cynical, bitter, or apathetic. There’s work to be done. There are stories to invent and tell so we can face the reality of days ahead.

Excerpt taken from Rainwalkers by Matt Ritter, out now via Sunbury Press.