Climate change is a complex beast to successfully communicate.
The Earth has a varying climate with short periods of hot climate and long periods of bitter cold. Most people don’t know this, but we live in an ice-age, or more specifically, a short warm period within an ice-age. According to geological records and astronomical calculations, we should be at the end of this slightly warmer period. In a sense, winter is coming. Or is it?
We currently live in the Holocene epoch. It’s quite fascinating to think that all of recorded human history has taken place within this relatively short stint of time — within an actual ice-age.
Some “climate deniers” often refers to temperatures at other epochs, stating that we’re well within such fluctuation margins historically. First, let’s go back to the fact that we’re living in an ice-age right now. Why is this? To better understand this, it’s helpful to know a thing (or three) about Milankovitch cycles. These cycles explain how the Earth’s orbit affect climate. There are many mathematical complexities surrounding these cycles, so let’s focus on the three most important variables:
1) First, we have the orbit’s eccentricity, because the “ovalness” of the Earth’s orbit varies. The more elliptical the orbit, the more extreme the seasons.
2) Second, we have the axial tilt, because the tilt of the Earth’s axis varies, too. Depending on the tilt, the polar areas get more or less sun radiation.
3) And third, we have precession. Precession is a “glide” in relation to fixed star measurements that comes in three different flavours; axis precession, apsidal precession, and orbital inclination.
All of the mentioned cycles are just that, cyclical. However, and this is where it gets a bit tricky to clearly communicate the state of the Earth’s climate, the cycles have vastly different periods. The axial tilt has a cycle of 41,000 years and the axial precession has a cycle of 26,000 years. The apsidal precession has a cycle of 112,000 years. The orbital inclination has a period of 70,000 to 100,000 years. The eccentricity has a cycle time of 413,000 years (with relatively large inner variations).
Where we are in all of these cycles at any given time will affect how much sun radiation we get here on Earth. Ice-ages occurs due to direct or indirect Milankovitch circumstances that allows the ice-caps to grow more in winter than they melt in summer. Add the gravitational pull from other planets, variations in the reflectiveness of the surface, the state of ocean temperatures, and the atmospheric composition.
Therefore, it’s not clever to compare today’s average temperatures and atmospheric composition to the same averages as they were, for example, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. In fact, focusing only on temperatures and atmospheric composition can be quite misleading for the general public1.
Still, given this knowledge, why can’t climate scientists give us a clearer sense of what will happen in the future? Well, scientists are trained to communicate scientific evidence. This is why they, almost unanimously, are communicating what they know to be a fact:
We do see unnatural climate change occurring rapidly — and it’s man-made.
What scientists can’t say with certainty is 1) how going into new Milankovitch configurations will affect us, and 2) how various cascading effects might occur (see chaos theory). This is simply because our conditions would be unprecedented in the Earth’s history2.
My assessment as a communications professional is that the scientific community has been forced to “dumb it down” to fit with political agendas and informing the public. The story goes, “We put out too much carbon into the atmosphere which is causing temperatures to rise which is causing unpleasant and even dangerous effects for humanity.” This is truly a broken narrative.
The narrative prompts the age-old political divide between the left and the right. The left calls for a totalitarian anti-capitalist agenda to avoid a certain doom. The right calls for a moderate approach in which we put our trust into human financial systems to spark innovation and ingenuity. Both are wrong; a totalitarian approach is according to our historic records likely to send our civilisation backwards while a capitalistic approach won’t appreciate that there might be an actual emergency looming far closer than our current systems can tackle.
But, both sides are also correct. The cascading effects of rapidly increasing Earth’s temperature and pushing volumes of species to extinction might have cascading effects that could rival any doomsday Hollywood blockbuster. And our single best bet to deal with various climate changes (and eventually the inevitable death of our planet) is to move to a more advanced stage of civilisation.
We must therefore separate between two approaches, long-term effects (Milankovitch scale effects) and short term effects (effects within Milankovitch scales). A simplified explanation would be that the left climate narrative is unequipped to deal with long-term effects while the right climate narrative is unequipped to deal with short-term effects.
So, what would be a better, yet still understandable, narrative?
Axiom 1: We should tackle short-term climate threats in any way we can as long as such measures doesn’t impede our chances of tackling long-term threats.
Axiom 2: We should tackle long-term climate threats in any way we can as long as such measures doesn’t impede our chances of tackling short-term threats.
The double axiom approach provides climate scientists with a clear task — to increase our understanding for how to balance these two sides. It provides politicians ranging from left to right with a template for how to prioritise with our planet’s best in mind. It allows our public discourse to strike a healthy balance between totalitarian desires from the left and ideas of infinite financial growth from the right.
Nature is all about balance and we must find this balance, too. It’s not just a moral quest to save the planet from humans, it’s also an existential challenge to evolve into a species capable of saving itself.
- One could argue that our way of warming up the Earth will offset (or completely cancel) the next cold phase of the current ice-age. This could arguably be good news, since having polar ice-caps cover large portions of the landmass in the Northern hemisphere would be troublesome. However, as the Milankovitch cycles exits what should’ve been an ice-age at such an unprecedented atmospheric composition, we could inevitably be facing the same faith as Mars or Venus.
- And this is where supercomputing climate models come into play. But statistical predictions based on models will only be as good as the computational prowess in conjunction with the assumptions going into the simulation.