a climate scientist, I am often asked to talk about hope.
Particularly in the current political climate, audiences want to be
told that everything will be all right in the end. And,
unfortunately, I have a deep-seated need to be liked and a natural
tendency to optimism that leads me to accept more speaking
invitations than is good for me. Climate change is bleak, the
organizers always say. Tell us a happy story. Give us hope. The
problem is, I don’t have any.
used to believe there was hope
The fact that we know anything at all is a miracle. For some reason,
the whole world is hung on a skeleton made of physics. I found
comfort in this structure, in the knowledge that buried under layers
of greenery and dirt lies something universal. It is something to
know how to cut away the flesh of existence and see the clean white
bones underneath. All of us obey the same laws, whether we know them
closely, however, and the structure of physics dissolves into
uncertainty. We live in a statistical world, in a limit where we
experience only one of many possible outcomes. Our clumsy senses
perceive only gross aggregates, blind to the roiling chaos
underneath. We are limited in our ability to see the underlying
stimuli that, en masse, create an event. Temperature, for example, is
a state created by the random motions of millions of tiny molecules.
We feel heat or cold, not the motion of any individual molecule. When
something is heated up, its tiny constituent parts move faster,
increasing its internal energy. They do not move at the same speed;
some are quick, others slow. But there are billions of them, and in
the aggregate their speed dictates their temperature.
internal energy of molecule motion is turned outward in the form of
electromagnetic radiation. Light comes in different flavors. The
stuff we see occupies only a tiny portion of a vast electromagnetic
spectrum. What we see occupies a tiny portion of a vast
electromagnetic spectrum. Light is a wave, of sorts, and the distance
between its peaks and troughs determines the energy it carries. Cold,
low-energy objects emit stretched waves with long, lazy intervals
between peaks. Hot objects radiate at shorter wavelengths.
have a temperature is to shed light into your surroundings. You have
one. The light you give off is invisible to the naked eye. You are
shining all the same, incandescent with the power of a hundred-watt
bulb. The planet on which you live is illuminated by the visible
light of the sun and radiates infrared light to the blackness of
space. There is nothing that does not have a temperature. Cold space
itself is illuminated by the afterglow of the Big Bang. Even black
holes radiate, lit by the strangeness of quantum mechanics. There is
nowhere from which light cannot escape.
same laws that flood the world with light dictate the behavior of a
carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere. CO2 is transparent to the
Sun’s rays. But the planet’s infrared outflow hits a molecule in
just such as way as to set it in motion. Carbon dioxide dances when
hit by a quantum of such light, arresting the light on its path to
space. When the dance stops, the quantum is released back to the
atmosphere from which it came. No one feels the consequences of this
individual catch-and-release, but the net result of many little
dances is an increase in the temperature of the planet. More CO2
molecules mean a warmer atmosphere and a warmer planet. Warm seas
fuel hurricanes, warm air bloats with water vapor, the rising sea
encroaches on the land. The consequences of tiny random acts echo
throughout the world.
understand the physical world because, at some level, I understand
the behavior of every small thing. I know how to assemble a coarse
aggregate from the sum of multiple tiny motions. Individual
molecules, water droplets, parcels of air, quanta of light: their
random movements merge to yield a predictable and understandable
whole. But physics is unable to explain the whole of the world in
which I live. The planet teems with other people: seven billion
fellow damaged creatures. We come together and break apart, seldom
adding up to an coherent, predictable whole.
have lived a fortunate, charmed, loved life. This means I have
infinite, gullible faith in the goodness of the individual. But I
have none whatsoever in the collective. How else can it be that
so many tiny acts of kindness is a world incapable of stopping
something so eminently stoppable? California burns. Islands and
coastlines are smashed by hurricanes. At night the stars are washed
out by city lights and the world is illuminated by the flickering
ugliness of reality television. We burn coal and oil and gas,
heedless of the consequences.
laws are changeable and shifting; the laws of physics are fixed.
Change is already underway; individual worries and sacrifices have
not slowed it. Hope is a creature of privilege: we know that things
will be lost, but it is comforting to believe that others will bear
the brunt of it.
are the lucky ones who suffer little tragedies unmoored from the
brutality of history. Our loved ones are taken from us one by one
through accident or illness, not wholesale by war or natural
disaster. But the scale of climate change engulfs even the most
fortunate. There is now no weather we haven’t touched, no
wilderness immune from our encroaching pressure. The world we once
knew is never coming back.
have no hope that these changes can be reversed. We are
our children to
live on an unfamiliar planet. But the opposite of hope is not
despair. It is grief. Even while resolving to limit the damage, we
can mourn. And here, the sheer scale of the problem provides a
perverse comfort: we are in this together. The swiftness of the
change, its scale and inevitability, binds us into one, broken hearts
trapped together under a warming atmosphere.
need courage, not hope. Grief, after all, is the cost of being alive.
We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, and are not
worth less for it.
Courage is the resolve to do well without the
assurance of a happy ending. Little molecules, random in their
movement, add together to a coherent whole. Little lives do not.
together on a planet radiating ever more into space where there is no
darkness, only light we cannot see.