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Amid Stark Realities, How Do Climate Scientists 'Stay Positive?'


This magazine headline sure grabs your attention - "When The End Of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job." The article in Esquire Magazine is about how climate scientists deal with the stark, depressing realities of the changing planet they're studying. And the author asks, do those scientists have to engage in their own kind of protective denial to keep carrying on with their work? John H. Richardson wrote the story, and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.


BLOCK: You start your article, John, with the story of a climatologist named Jason Box. And I think among the gloomy scientists whom you talked to, he has to be considered the gloomiest. He's an American. He's moved to Denmark to study glaciers in Greenland. How dire is the future that he sees?

RICHARDSON: Well, what he sees is really dire. He was one of the first people to look at the melt in Greenland, specifically. He's been going back there for 25 years. But he's also talking about Antarctica, where things are pretty alarming, and people feel that the melt of the ice shelf there is unstoppable. So he's predicting 80 feet by the end of the century, which would basically eliminate our coastlines.

But oddly, Dr. Box kept saying no, I'm not emotionally upset. I'm really not. But then he kept perseverating about the suffering that was coming and his concerns about survival of people in Africa and in the central areas of all the continents. So it was really interesting. The urge to stay positive or to stay useful is very powerful in these guys, and I think it sort of stymies facing their own feelings and their own real depression ultimately.

BLOCK: Do you think Jason Box is an outlier, though, among climate scientists? I mean, you describe him going to the darker possibilities on the probability curve's tail...


BLOCK: ...In other words, the worst-case scenarios. You also talk though to Gavin Schmidt at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies who tells you, look; it's not right to say, oh, we're doomed. There is time to build a sustainable solution. We can make better decisions about all this.

RICHARDSON: Interestingly enough on the science, these guys are not that far apart. It's just really how you feel about it. And Gavin Schmidt is the climate communicator of the year. And he, in a very decent way, wants to make people understand what's going on without upsetting them so much that they fall into paralysis. I think the danger in that is that it lets people off the hook. It lets people go, oh, well, it's not that bad. We can deal with it.

BLOCK: Do the climate scientists whom you interviewed talk about this with each other - the gloom, sometimes the nihilism or the detachment that maybe they have to bring to their work every day?

RICHARDSON: I think they do. Traditionally, the scientists have all told each other, don't get caught up in it. Don't get emotional. Just - this is science. Stick to the numbers. That's changing because people have a feeling that this is not just a scientific problem, but it's a global and a moral problem. But I think when they get together at conferences and all that, there's a lot of gloomy talk, and they all have their little strategies for dealing with it ranging from going camping to taking vacations to not thinking about it.

BLOCK: Or - I don't know - a good dose of yoga.

RICHARDSON: That came up - or just doing Facebook.

BLOCK: You know, it's interesting because you did get an email from the wife of climatologist Jason Box, the one whom I described as among the gloomiest of the gloomy, and she doesn't seem to share his attitude at all even though she lives with him, obviously, and must absorb a lot of what he's thinking.

RICHARDSON: Well, I think this is part of the whole thing. You don't want to be despairing around your family. You want to be strong for your family. You want to be optimistic, and you want to communicate that to your kids. When I was working on this piece, I didn't leave all my research materials lying around the apartment the way I usually do. I didn't want the kids to see the last chance to save humanity on the coffee table. They've got their own lives to live.

BLOCK: You thought that might upset them a little bit, might rock their world.

RICHARDSON: Yeah, so - and I think Jason Box and his wife are both trying to be good parents and good citizens in that way. But I don't think it's happened. She also refers in that letter to him getting up in the middle of the night and going to his desk, and I think that's the way Jason Box deals with his anxiety. And I'm counting on him to do good science when he gets there.

BLOCK: That's John H. Richardson. His article "When The End Of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job" appears in the current issue of Esquire Magazine. John, thanks so much.

RICHARDSON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.