The Academy’s 2005th Stated Meeting on February 12, 2014, featured members of the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT performing a staged reading of Chantal Bilodeau’s play SILA. Set on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, the play features a climate scientist, an Inuit activist and her daughter, an Inuit elder, two Canadian Coast Guard officers, and polar bears all grappling with the rapidly changing environment. The reading was followed by a panel discussion with Naomi Oreskes (Professor of the History of Science and Affiliated Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University), Robert L. Jaffe (Jane and Otto Morningstar Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and playwright Chantal Bilodeau (Artistic Director of The Arctic Cycle) about the competing interests shaping the future of our planet. The program included a welcome from Alan Lightman (Professor of the Practice of the Humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and an introduction of the staged reading from Debra Wise (Artistic Director of the Underground Railway Theater and Codirector of the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT). An edited transcript of the discussion follows.
Recently I have been thinking about how to communicate the meaning of climate change. I spent a big part of the last fifteen years at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where I spent a lot of time with experts who worked on atmospheric and oceanographic issues related to climate change. So I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the scientific evidence and the arguments that scientists have made about this issue. While there is no question that the data are tremendously important, what I also started to understand was how scientists – wonderful, brilliant people – were not in fact reaching most people. When we started talking about what came to be known as “the communication problem,” most scientists at the time thought that if we talked about improving communication, it meant simplifying a graph or trying to speak without so many equations. In short, the idea was that the problem of climate change is so technical that people are not sufficiently scientifically literate to understand it; and so the problem of communication was a problem of simplification or, as some people would say, “dumbing down” the discussion of the issue.
However, I started to come to the conclusion that scientists were misdiagnosing the problem, and if you misdiagnose the problem, then your solutions are unlikely to be effective. I started to feel that the real problem was that people didn’t understand why climate change mattered for us, that they didn’t see that things we care about are at stake. I realized that until we talk about the meaning of climate change for us – for people, for plants and animals, for the natural environment we depend on for life, sustenance, food, shelter, and beauty – we would not in fact move society. So I began to experiment with trying to communicate in a different genre, and that is why I am so excited to be here tonight, because I believe that it is crucial for artists to become part of the conversation. It is important for us to think about the emotional and aesthetic aspects of these issues and to find ways to talk about those things without being discredited by our academic colleagues.
One line in tonight’s reading was about how science and politics should not mix. This is in fact what most scientists believe, and in some ideal way, what I believe, too. In theory, the world would be a very fine place indeed if we could do science in a pure intellectual and epistemic way: answer questions about this amazing natural world that we live in and have that be a purely intellectual endeavor. The dream of pure science is one that moves me very deeply. But I also know that this dream does not match reality, and scientists who choose to ignore this truth do so at their own peril. My book Merchants of Doubt was an attempt to understand the explosive mix that has developed around the question of climate change, and the ways in which science and politics have collided in this domain. One of the things I learned by working on that project was the danger of scientists’ attempts to resist the reality that science and politics are in this together.
I began to see how the debate about climate change really is not a scientific debate; that is to say, it is not an argument among scientists about the facts of climate change, but rather a political argument about the implications of climate change. I should pause to clarify that I am talking about anthropogenic climate change: change caused by human actions, such as the burning of greenhouse gases or deforestation, not natural variability. The scientific recognition of the facts surrounding anthropogenic climate change has huge implications for the way we live and how we organize our economic system in the industrialized West. So the problem begins with science because it was scientists who recognized the potential of greenhouse gases and deforestation to change Earth’s climate; it was scientists who first began to talk about it as a potential problem; it was scientists who recognized the political consequences of climate change; and it was even scientists who began to recognize the economic consequences as well. But scientists were not prepared to grapple with all the economic, social, moral, ethical, and aesthetic implications, and so they left a kind of vacuum that has been filled by disinformation and obfuscation.
I once asked a colleague, a physicist, why, when all of this denial and disinformation began to come out, he didn’t say something. His response: “We knew it was garbage so we just ignored it.” One of the lessons of the last twenty years is that that approach just won’t work. We would not let garbage pile up on our front lawns and think that it would somehow go away on its own. What we have learned is that the garbage of industrial civilization, the contaminants we put into the atmosphere – the CO2, the methane, the CFCs – they do not go away. And left alone, disinformation doesn’t go away either.
However much we might want science and politics to be separate, however much we might dream of a world in which they are separate, that is not the world that exists. The most important thing that we can do moving forward is to find ways for scientists and people in politics, economics, and the arts to work together to see this as a team project. With different insights from these diverse domains, we can come together to solve this very profound problem.
There is deep, diverse, and robust evidence that if we continue to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, cut down forests, and change our biological systems, we will profoundly affect Earth’s climate in ways that will reverberate for ages. It was particularly impressive to see this, through tonight’s reading, in the context of the Arctic, because that is where climate change has shown itself most early and most impressively so far, and where scientists agree that change in mean temperature is going to be most severe. The impact on indigenous cultures will be massive; it will be comparable to the impact of the first encounters with Western civilization, and it will profoundly change the nature of life in the Arctic. I became interested in climate change through a course I developed at MIT on the “Physics of Energy.” I am not an expert on climate science, but this year I am chair of the American Physical Society’s Panel on Public Affairs, which puts me very much in the middle of the debate on how scientists understand Earth’s climate and how they evaluate the effects of climate change.
It is really important to get the science right, so I would like to make a plea in my short time for further support of climate science research. One of the reasons why climate deniers have had success is that the state of climate knowledge is still woefully inadequate to take a full inventory of the extent of the effects that we will face. Climate is a noisy, driven, non-equilibrium system with nonlinearities across all kinds of scales of distance and time. It is as complex a problem as scientists have had to deal with; comparable to the most difficult problems in fundamental research. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released the first part of its fifth report on the physical basis of climate change. At a length of 1,500 pages, it is hard to carry, to say nothing of what it is like to read.
In 1896, the Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius made the first estimate of what is called the climate sensitivity parameter, that is, how much Earth’s mean surface temperature would be expected to rise if the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere doubled. His estimate was 2 to 5.5 degrees centigrade. In the new report from the IPCC, they estimate the same parameter and put it somewhere between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees centigrade. Not much improvement after a century-and-a-quarter of work on climate science, and furthermore the IPCC’s statements are couched in probabilities. They say, for example, that there is a 95 percent likelihood that human-emitted greenhouse gases were responsible for more than half of the change in temperature in Earth’s mean surface temperature since 1950.
We are confronted with very difficult scientific problems. We don’t know the range of natural climate variability. This has proven to be a severe complication in the latest review because Earth’s mean surface temperature has risen only slightly over the last fifteen years. It rose dramatically from 1990 to 1998, but after 1998 it stayed at this new high level without increasing much in the fifteen years that followed. There is no clear explanation for this. Some of it is attributed to the El Niño southern oscillation, a long-term natural variability in climate. Some of it may be because of a lack of understanding of the interactions between the deep ocean (that is, the ocean below 700 meters), the surface thermodynamics of the ocean, and the atmosphere.
To put the importance of reducing uncertainties in perspective, all the global warming anticipated by the median consensus expectation between now and 2050 would be accommodated by an average temperature rise in the ocean on the order of 0.1 degree centigrade if the entire ocean warmed. That is not likely to happen; in fact, there is lots of evidence that deep ocean does not participate in these dynamics. But the research needed to further explore and improve our understanding of such issues is woefully underfunded (if funded at all). The situation is similar for atmospheric research, in particular for obtaining measurements in the high troposphere throughout Earth’s temperate and equatorial regions. Our government doesn’t fund climate science research adequately, and the scientific community and the quality of public debate are suffering as a result. Climate change deniers are able to stoke controversy because of the absence of clear resolution on some of the more fundamental questions.
One of the goals I gave myself in writing this play (and the other seven to come) was to bring as many people to the table as possible. I wanted people from various disciplines to engage in conversation, using the play as a stepping-stone. Tonight is a great example of that and it gives me enormous hope for the impact these plays can have.
I started working on SILA in 2009 with a commission from a theater in San Diego that was interested in a play about the intersection of race, class, and climate change. I had not long before that returned from a trip to Alaska. It was my first time in the Arctic, and the place really captured my imagination.
This was in 2008–2009, and at that time I had not yet encountered any plays that dealt with climate change. During those years, there was a lot of talk about the opening of the Northwest Passage in Canada so I started looking into that. And I decided that to really understand that area and the people who live there, I had to go in person. So after doing research at home and setting up some meetings, I left on a three-week trip to Baffin Island. I came back with my views completely changed. I had set out with the idea of writing what we think of as the traditional play form: one narrative, one point of view, one issue being addressed. By the time I came back, I knew that structure wasn’t adequate because what I encountered was so much more complex and interwoven than I expected. I realized that the play had to include multiple narratives, multiple voices, with all of them given equal value. For me, this was the best way to capture the complexity and interconnectedness of the people and issues I encountered in the Canadian Arctic.
Stories from many of the people I talked to ended up in the play, sometimes as is and sometimes modified. One person in particular was a big inspiration: Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit activist and runner-up for the Nobel Peace Prize the same year that Al Gore received the prize. I was in contact with an Inuit organization in Ottawa, and the woman I talked to there basically handed me Watt-Cloutier’s email address. She was busy, but she gave me an hour of her time and shared her views on climate change. My encounter with her really influenced how I wrote the play.
Something else that was really important to me with this play was to stay away from radical thinking. The climate change issue is very polarized, and that is not helpful. It is understandable and probably good for all of us to feel passionate about what we believe in, but we have to be able to listen to each other and work together. So if there is a point that the play makes, I hope it is this one.
SILA is the first play in a series of eight plays, one for each country of the Arctic. I started with Canada, which is where I am originally from and the country I know best. I have also written a draft of the second play, which is set in Norway after I went on a sailing expedition around the Svalbard archipelago in 2011 to do research. We presented a reading of the play in Oslo this past December and I was a little nervous about Norwegians’ reaction to an outsider looking at their culture and writing about it. But people were very supportive and actually happy that someone was looking at their stories and talking about them. I am hoping to be able to continue developing that play there. My two most important goals with this series of Arctic plays are to bring as many people to the table as possible; and to be able to have each play done in the country where it is set, as a way to make the climate change conversation even richer and more international than it is.
If we ask ourselves, what do we need to do, that question will not be answered by better climate models or more refined analyses of ocean heat uptake. These things are legitimate, but they are not the point. We need to be able to answer questions about how we get improved energy technologies; we need to be able to answer questions about public acceptance. I don’t agree with the suggestion that the reason why there is so much debate about climate science is because the science has fundamental uncertainties. I think the evidence is against that proposition.
We know something about why people are in denial about climate change. We know where the contrarian movement comes from, and it is not because the science is uncertain; the evidence of that is overwhelming. If we are scientists, empirically oriented with a deep belief in data, then we should be paying attention to that evidence. We do need to do research, but it is not more research on the details of the climate system. We might want to do that because we want to understand the climate system as scientists, but in terms of addressing climate change, it is questions about energy and about policy that we need to be asking. We know that a tax can be an effective policy instrument, but we don’t know the conditions under which people accept taxation. There are all kinds of interesting and important intellectual questions that are more grossly underfunded than climate science.
We have been confused about what it is that we need to do, and the scientific community could play a really helpful role here – a brave role in fact. Scientists could stand up and say yes, we love and care about science, we want to understand the natural world better, but in terms of what we need now I believe there are more urgent things needed.
Climate change skeptics and critics continually point to the weaknesses in the fundamental science. Whether they are justified in doing that and whether we should pay attention to it may not be the question, but these people have the ear of public policy-makers; they come forward and claim that we don’t understand climate science any better than they did a hundred years ago. They say we don’t understand whether the deep ocean can soak up this heat and not result in significant changes to the climate. Improving the scientific basis will give us the weapons to confront that discussion from the point of view of knowledge rather than ignorance.
Furthermore, it makes a tremendous difference to the way we will persevere as a society whether sea levels go up by 10 centimeters, 1 meter, or 3 meters by the end of the twenty-first century. The people in Bangladesh would do well to know that, and we cannot answer that question until we have better estimates on the interaction between the atmosphere and the ocean. So it is not that this should influence the decision to put a tax or price on carbon. We should be taking those policy steps now, and scientists should speak out. Scientists have an active and important role to play in partnering with policy-makers to address this problem quickly. Frankly, it may already be too late, as you probably know, because of the lifetime of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But the need to understand the scope of what we have to deal with is an important ingredient in developing sensible policy, and we cannot do that without a better understanding of the science, a better understanding of the models, and better data.
Let me postulate that the science is inadequate to answer the question of whether sea-level change will be 10 centimeters, 3 meters, or 10 meters in 50 years, that it will be 50 years before we know the answer to that question. This is an inference about the maturity and state of the science. There is a kind of touching faith that another five or ten years is going to give us the answers to those questions. One of the reasons for what Professor Oreskes has picked up on – that the science community has been loath to get involved with the politics – is that the science is not mature enough to say what will happen. The science is mature enough to tell you what the risks are. Risk analysis is not science as we normally do it, and as everybody knows, tolerance for risk, both individually and at a societal level, is extremely broad. And so there is a mismatch here. There is the faith that if we do more research, somehow it is going to give you the answer. And it is probably going to be a hundred years before we understand this problem well enough to answer the urgent questions. What does society need to do when the science is not mature enough to give you definitive answers?
My experience of climate scientists is that they talk in the future tense because it is easier to talk about the future than the present, because nobody really knows what will happen in the future. Bringing the discussion back to the present and bringing it back to the human level and the impacts that are already being felt helps make it a real issue for people. It also makes it not just about future risk, but present reality.
Something that was very poignant to me when I went to the Arctic was to see and hear how fast the changes were happening. I felt we needed to capture those stories now because in twenty or thirty years, they won’t be around. Even the Inuit way of life will be completely different because of the changing environment. The stories that Inuit hunters have told themselves for thousands of years, that help them deal with the climate, food, hunting, where it is safe to go, when it is safe to go – those stories are not as reliable anymore because things are changing so fast. So this is a really important moment in history.
What is the advantage if we all acknowledge that these stories have value and should be told to galvanize the public or to raise our consciousness? You could have interviewed these people and then have chosen to write a nonfiction book or make a documentary film. Can you tell us what you see as the advantage of doing a theater piece versus a nonfiction book or film?
I wouldn’t say one form is better than the other. Theater has the advantage of bringing people together in the same room. It is rooted in ritual; there is a celebration of something when we go to the theater – it is almost like going to church. You celebrate human nature, and you experience something very deeply and very intimately in a room full of people. It has a certain power that other art forms do not.