Heather Short holds a PhD in Earth sciences and is a consulting content specialist for climate literacy courses at Sterling College, Vermont.
Many of us became scientists because we enjoy collecting data and figuring out what it might be telling us. We have curious minds and love the process of scientific discovery. Collaboration with other scientists is also great. We speak the same science language and share the same basic knowledge of how the physical world works.
We did not, however, become scientists in order to be public figures or political activists. We are taught how to share our research with peers and students, not the general public – and certainly not with politicians and heads of corporations. None of us took courses in graduate school about communicating the end of the world as we know it.
Yet, this is exactly what I found myself doing after 25 years of teaching geology, earth systems and climate science. What was abstract and interesting at the beginning of my career has become increasingly dissonant with what is happening (or, not happening) politically to prevent climate and ecological catastrophe.
Teaching young people about the climate system and its human-caused breakdown while they do not have the agency to stop it, and while we scientists and educators plod along in our (mostly) secure lives and jobs, is morally problematic.
That is why, in August, I resigned from my tenured position teaching climate science at John Abbott College in Montreal’s West Island. It was an act of conscientious objection to an educational system that is preparing students for a future that will not exist.
Students are climate-crisis-fatigued, angry, confused, hopeless and often in denial – because the world outside of the classroom is itself in denial. They need to see us “adults” behaving as though we are in the emergency that they learn about at school. And they need to see us actively working to avoid a hellish future for them.
I will be using my time from now on to educate adults, who have the social and economic agency to actually do something about this crisis. Instead of teaching in classrooms, I will be offering my expertise wherever receptive minds are present – in workplaces, in public and online. And I’m suggesting that others join me.
On our present course, we are on track to reach 2 C of heating above preindustrial levels in the next 30 years, and to experience the devastating heat waves, floods and fires that come with it. Last summer, at 1.2 degrees of heating, hundreds died in Western Canada during a heat wave, and the town of Lytton, B.C., burned to the ground. In November, B.C. was hit again, this time with devastating floods.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommends that humanity reduce CO2 emissions by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030. This, the panel says, would give us a 66 per cent chance of preventing global heating from rising beyond 1.5 C above preindustrial levels. This guideline is the bare minimum of what governments should be aiming for if they hope to avoid self-amplifying feedbacks that will push the climate system past a point of no return, after which any human efforts to stabilize the environment will be futile.
In September, Climate Action Tracker rated Canada’s climate target, policies and finance as “highly insufficient,” putting us in the same category as Brazil, China, Saudi Arabia and Australia. The Canadian government’s new COP26 emissions reduction pledges are an incremental step in the right direction, but do not come close to what is necessary to mitigate climate catastrophe. As 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben has said, “winning slowly is the same thing as losing.”
There is, however, good news. New modelling tells us that the climate is likely to stabilize within decades, not centuries, if humanity stops pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Natural ecosystems will pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere faster than had been anticipated, if we give them a chance to do so. This means the sooner and more aggressively we act, the more likely it is the living world will have a livable future.
Most non-scientists do not understand this, and they fall into one of two coping mechanisms: despair, or passive denial, neither of which leads to action, political or otherwise. In times of massive upheaval and uncertainty, people tend to want to cling to what is familiar. This leads to a tragic lack of imagination, with attempts to solve climate and ecological crises within the structures of the system that got us here in the first place.
Averting disaster will require educating our colleagues, administrators, public officials, politicians and the general public in basic climate literacy – through free lectures, courses and op-eds in local and national newspapers. It will require writing expert statements in defence of those who are able to participate in civil disobedience against government and corporate inaction. It will require creating and participating in an independent national climate science advisory panel – with no ties to the fossil fuel industry – that can serve as the scientific authority for government policies and communication, much like the newly formed European Scientific Advisory Board on Climate Change.
What needs to happen now is for those of us who are climate scientists and educators, who can articulate the immense scale and urgency of radical greenhouse gas emissions reductions, to step out onto the public stage. There is a severe lack of scientific authority in public and political discussion in Canada, and we have an obligation to use our collective credibility to inform public opinion and government policy.
This is an extraordinary time to be alive, and it is crucial that we use our privilege, as climate-science-literate global northerners who have benefitted from decades of unmitigated extraction and emissions, to speak the scientific truth as publicly as possible.
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