More Galileos, fewer Simplicios

I recently had a short conversation with a European colleague at IIASA, touching on the acceptance of global warming in North America. (In her northern European country, in which the lumber industry is critical, the public conversation about climate change is mature, advanced, and solutions-oriented. Obviously that’s not quite the case everywhere.) It suddenly struck me how radically different the present state of public consciousness is to what it was just a few years ago, especially in the US. No doubt this has to do with the recent spate of TV-newsworthy extreme storm events, California wildfires, and so on — that is, human-environmental interactions that were experienced by millions, not just talked about. But as a community, we’re also getting much better at communicating our results. The image featured here (which I first saw in this article) is a fabulous way to visualize how a lot of climate scientists conceive of trajectories, or likely outcomes of societal choices, before they come to pass.

Societal choices usually mean those on a vast scale, undertaken by governments and industrialists. But I was inspired by all of the kids I saw at the big Fridays for Future march we had in Vienna a week ago, on 15 March, which made clear the scalability and impact of motivated, distributed individuals. (It was marvelous, and I mean to say something more about the march soon.) Frankly, this feels like a movement; and most important, it is so in the hearts and minds of young people who, even more than millennials, will bear more of the true costs of the societal choices made today.

So it was hardly a surprise when I woke this morning to a story pushed to my phone from a group calling itself the “NIPCC” (the “non-governmental” IPCC, I just discovered). I’ll not link it here, but will say though it was presented like a scientific article (in that it had citations and properly used capital letters), it read a little like an old man yelling at clouds might sound. This is noteworthy not only because Google’s algorithms clearly need some dialing in on my interests, but because the NIPCC’s sponsoring organization, the Heartland Institute (where mainstream climate scientists imagine that dark arts are practiced with robes and puppy blood), is clearly focused on winning over an undecided group of people that, if they exist at all anymore, are not the most relevant demographics in societal choice-making.

Now that broad public attention to the seriousness of the problem is more in line with the best available proxy, instrumental, and model data, we must focus on problem-solving to science the shit out of this. I am reasonably optimistic, but this is based partly on my belief that humanity will martial more of its collective resources to the problem. To this end, I imagine more socially interested engineers, more interdisciplinary scientists, more thoughtful artists, and more open-minded, solutions-oriented thinkers, and fewer rednecks. In a few words, more Galileos, fewer Simplicios.

Image: Alexander Radtke

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