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We can talk about climate change with stories of kindness, fairytales, and hope

Speaking with Kate Marvel about the importance of — and the nuances involved in — talking about climate change

Maryam Zaringhalam

Molecular Biology

This week is Climate Week, coinciding with the UN Climate Change Summit. On September 25th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its newest report. Every day this week Massive will be publishing articles and interviews with scientists, policy experts, and activists about climate change, all aspects of the new report, and the future of the planet. 

On a daily basis, climate scientists research the different aspects of climate change – but also spend a large amount of their time communicating about climate change to researchers, activists, policy experts and other members of the general public. Kate Marvel is a climate scientist at Columbia University and the NASA Goddard Institute of Space studies, where she uses computer models and satellite observations to explore climate change. She is also a science writer and a public speaker, where she regularly writes Scientific American's Hot Planet column. Marvel spoke with Maryam Zaringhalam about communicating climate change, including the importance of kindness, fairytales, and having hope.

Maryam Zaringhalam: I feel like, a lot of time with climate scientists, they're mostly making the case that climate change is a thing that's happening. They don't get to talk about the particulars of their research other than treating the issue of climate change like it’s a binary yes or no question. So out of curiosity, what is it exactly that your research centers on — beyond supporting the fact that climate change is indeed happening, and we have to act?

Kate Marvel: I really love that question – because we've basically known that climate change is an issue since Svante Arrhenius, who wrote the first paper in 1896 suggesting that anthropogenic carbon dioxide could warm the planet. The observations and the really rigorous calculations that build on that were carried out by Guy Stewart Callendar in the 1930s. With this, we've known that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and that if you put it in the atmosphere, it’ll warm up the planet. 

But my research really centers around two main questions.

One is: why does it matter? What does climate change look like? How does it affect things that we care about — like rainfall patterns, drought risk, and cloud cover? 

And so, what I use is all of the data that I can get. I use observations. I use the output of computer models of the climate system. I use reconstructions of past climates based on tree rings. All of this data is directed towards asking the question: what do human actions do to things like rainfall? My work has shown that we are already changing global rainfall patterns. We're already altering cloud cover. We’ve also found human activities were likely affecting drought risk as early as the first part of the last century. 

My other area of research is focused on the question: how hot is it going to get? The reason that we don't know how hot it's going to get is primarily because we don't know what people are going to do. We don't know if we're going to get serious about cutting emissions or if we're just going to set everything on fire because nothing matters anymore. 

But even if we remove all of the uncertainty about what people are going to do, there’s still a lot of physical uncertainty in the climate system, such as a lot of things that we don’t understand about how the Earth reacts when it gets warmer. So a lot of my work is focused on understanding what processes change on a warming planet — and how those change processes feed back onto the Earth, whether it’s making it warmer, cooler, accelerating climate change or slowing it down.

MZ: I find it really interesting about what you've said about basically using all of the data available to ask why climate change matters, especially given that you communicate about climate change. 

But until recently, I didn’t see very many spaces or much of a diversity of voices talking about the issue of climate change. For example, you use all of the data available to integrate it and show why climate change matters. Yet I feel like, for a long time, we haven't been effectively using the diversity of voices and experiences to talk about this multi-modal, multifaceted issue.

KM: There is no one way to talk about climate change because climate change is not one thing. It is really multi-faceted. It affects every variable of the climate system. 

But it also affects every part of human society. If you care about racial justice, you care about climate change. If you care about economic inequality, you care about climate change. If you care about migration, you care about climate change. If you care about health care, you care about climate change. Because it's so multifaceted, there is no one way to talk about it. 

I don't think I have any special insight into how to talk about climate change. As I'm a scientist, I talk about it from that perspective. But I feel like there should not be one person — a spokesperson — for climate change. There should be a diversity of voices talking about it — from different backgrounds, with different areas of expertise, with different lived experiences. It's really important for all of us to try to really lift up those voices. 

Instead of anointing one climate communicator, I think we should have as many people as possible talking about what's really an important issue. And we should make sure that those voices are heard in the mainstream conversation.

MZ: I think what you're saying is exactly right – and I think it's something I really admire about you is that you seem to have this endless patience and compassion for people. I think that's so useful as a climate communicator, because you get some shit, and yet you are endlessly kind on the internet. 

And so, I'm wondering: how do you manage that, and why do you think that kindness is so important? 

KM: I feel like my secret is that I am not a great person, and that I have done many, many things that require forgiveness. So, I have a vested interest in empathy and forgiveness because I need that myself a lot of the time. I want to try to extend to other people what I want to be extended to me. But, you know, I think you can get into a conversation about: does everybody have the right to demand forgiveness? Absolutely not. But I also think we focus too much on the loudest voices and the surest voices. 

A lot of the people yelling at me on the Internet are not even people — they’re bots. They’re designed to get an emotional reaction. Or there are people who represent a very small percentage of the American population — and an even smaller percentage of the global population — which is people who have made up their minds that climate change is a hoax, that it's not real and it's not happening. They make up a tiny, tiny percentage of the population. 

The vast majority of people — people who say something that might come across as ignorant — a lot of that is coming from a place of feeling another emotion. People are feeling confusion. People are feeling fear. People are feeling despair. Feeling those emotions doesn't make you a bad person who should be thrown away. 

A sign that reads "Wake Up" above a picture of planet Earth on fire, being held up at a protest.

There has been a rise in the number of people calling for action on climate change.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash 

I used to only get yelled at by people on the right of the political spectrum. Now, I still get yelled at by those people, but I also get yelled at by people who are terrified of climate change. People who say: “Scientists are low-balling their projections and we're all going to die. We’re all going to go extinct. Why aren't you on board with this messaging? How dare you!” That comes from a place of fear, despair and frustration that we've known about this since 1896, yet why haven’t we done anything about it? I get that. 

But I think it's still very important to say: no, here's what the science says and here’s what I believe to be true. Here is what's true, here's what's not true, there's my response to it, and I stand by that. But at the same time: calling people idiots never changes their minds, and a lot of people aren’t trying to be evil. They're not trying to be wrong or bad or mean. They’re just scared or frustrated or despairing. 

MZ: That new category of people yelling at you is one that I want to kind of hone in on here. Something I’ve really learned from you and others in the last few years is optimism. For a long time, I equated being optimistic with naivete or being overly idealistic. But I think more and more that optimism requires strength, which is something that I got from your On Being essay about needing courage, not hope, to face climate change. So, I’m wondering, how do you practice that courage, especially when there are so many people telling you that you need to panic?

KM: Whether or not you have optimism or hope — that doesn't matter to me. Someone asked me the other day: do you think we’re going to cut emissions? I can’t see the future. I don't know. But we can help make the future. 

It's like if somebody asks you, “Am I going to get hit by a bus tomorrow?” I don't know. But maybe look both ways before you cross the street. You can never be perfectly safe, but you can take action in order to make bad outcomes less likely. 

The fact that we know exactly what's causing climate change — that's really certain. That's more certain than almost anything else in science. That certainty is really empowering because it means that carbon dioxide is warming the planet. How do we not warm the planet? We don't put it there anymore, or we take it out of the atmosphere. For me, that knowledge is really empowering. 

I also think things are changing. We had a presidential climate crisis town hall that would have been unthinkable in 2016. The fact that that happened really speaks to the power of movements, like the Sunrise Movement and the Climate Strike Movement, and the young women of color who are really organizing and providing leadership. That shows that progress is possible. 

Is it complete progress? No. Do we still have a lot more to do? Yes. But we can create the future. We're not helpless. We're not passive. We can actually organize, and we can change things.

MZ: Yeah!

Keeping on optimism and public engagement, I’m wondering if there’s a time where you changed someone's mind, such as a memorable kind of person-to-person interaction, that made you a little bit more hopeful, optimistic or came as a surprise

KM: I don't know. The Hollywood narrative of minds getting changed, somebody having an epiphany and saying they were wrong — I'm not sure that happens as often as movies make us believe it does. What I think actually happens is people who didn't care very much start to care a little bit. And then they care a little bit more. And then they care a lot. Because they see how all of these other things that they care about are tied in with a changing climate.

So, for me, it's that sort of slow evolution, even though it's not as dramatic as the sort of come to Jesus moment, where you change your mind all of a sudden and realize you were wrong. People don't have those conversions a lot of the time. And that's okay. It's a much slower evolution — and it's a more of a collective thing. You talk about climate change with your friends. And then, it just becomes something that you talk about. And then, maybe you show up to something. And then, maybe you call your representative. It's small changes. It's collective changes. And I think those are the things that really build movements and make change.

Protesters holding signs in support of science.

The March for Science began in 2017, and has happened annually since to celebrate science and the role it plays in everyday lives.

 Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash 

MZ: Climate change seems to me to be a problem that’s tied up in the limits of our empathy and also reaches the limits of our imagination – which I think is why I find it so interesting that you've written some fairy tales about climate change. 

I'm wondering: why? Where did that idea came from?

KM: I'm really obsessed with this idea: how do we tell a story about climate change? The story we've been telling for a really long time is about this big, slow moving thing. And it's your fault personally because you used a plastic straw and now this polar bear is going to die. Don't you feel sad?

But that story doesn't work; or, if it does work, it’s reached the limits of its efficacy. So how do we take this large-scale issue and turn it into something that people can relate to? Because we don't relate to figures. We don't relate to graphs. Even I as a scientist, when I sit down and I work with computer models, I have to use my brain in a way that's not intuitive. It doesn't come naturally to me. And what is very intuitive to me — what I don't really have to be super switched to do — is a simple story. 

There's a lot of talk about how we can talk to kids about climate change. And humans, ever since we've been settled, have been talking to our children about big scary things in a sort of digestible form. So a fairy tale is a way that you talk to kids about death and jealousy and power. A lot of the Grimm Fairy Tales are really, really grim because they are introducing children to the realities of life in 17th century Europe, which was a fairly grim place.

But fairy tales — or folk tales — are found in every culture. There's classifications of them, where different motifs appear over and over and over because there's something intrinsically useful about these. There's something intrinsically appealing about different archetypes. And what I wanted to do is play around a little bit with that idea of how do we talk to children — and adults — about big scary amorphous concepts in a way that we're used to encountering these things.

MZ: I think climate change is one of those things where when you're in the middle of it, it's really hard to see past it or around it or how it might resolve. So having this device — this form of storytelling where there are elements of it that are that are rooted in our reality — is so useful. Because then you kind of take it to some sort of other place and watch how it plays out.

KM: I think that’s a really good point. What makes fantasy really readable and really engaging is the coherency of the world. So we can be in a totally different world, but as long as there are rules that make sense in that world, we can feel immersed in it. We can go with it. 

I've read some bad fantasy. Bad fantasy is “Oh, I forgot to mention, there is this magic spell that does this thing,” and whatever is needed to advance the plot happens. It’s not very convincing or very immersive. On the other hand, a really well-done fantasy world — like the ones built by N.K. Jemisin, J.R.R. Tolkien or J.K. Rowling — these worlds that people really love and want to live in, you get the sense that there are rules that govern everything. There's consistency. 

That’s basically what our climate model is doing. It’s letting us look at a different world, a world that’s two degrees, three degrees, four degrees warmer. That world is so fundamentally different from our own, but it still obeys a set of laws. So that model is very literally like a world building machine.

MZ: You're a star who has been on the rise for a couple years. So I’m wondering, what's the scariest thing that you've been asked to do? What advice might you have to people who are kind of like newly finding themselves activated or with a growing platform?

KM: I feel like the really scary things that you’re asked to do are the ones that are outside your area of expertise, where you don’t feel confident talking about that. That becomes a lot less scary when you develop a network of people who do know what they're talking about. It’s so important to immediately pass the mic when you get asked to talk about things that are a little bit outside your area of confidence — or where you think a different perspective might be more useful. So, I feel as I’ve developed a bigger network, I've gotten a lot better at saying, “Don’t talk to me about that. You need to talk to this other person. She’s fantastic.” 

When we talk about imposter syndrome, we tend to either say it doesn't exist or talk about it in this sort of “you go girl!” way. But that ignores the fact that there are limits to everybody's expertise and everybody's only lived in one experience. It's really helpful to hear other experiences. So, it’s important to have the confidence to say, “I'm not the right person to talk to about that. Here's somebody else.” But if you just do that reflexively and you never say yes to anything, then that’s the kind of impostor syndrome coming out. 

But I know the limits of my expertise. I know how my experience allows me to talk about a certain subject. And I know when I'm not the right person. That’s incredibly empowering.

MZ: I think that's something that’s a weird space to navigate for people who are told constantly that they need to be empowered. You’re constantly wondering is this the moment when I'm feeling powerless, but should be empowered? Or am I doing the right thing by passing the mic off?

KM: Yeah. And I think having the confidence to say very, very clearly: “I know enough about this to know that this is the right person for you to talk to.” That, for me, is very empowering.

hands on a tree bark log diverse

Instead of anointing one climate communicator, we should have as many people as possible talking about climate change  – and we should make sure that those voices are heard in the mainstream conversation.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash 

MZ: And I think it also gets to the fact that climate science is not only a multifaceted problem, but that it’s a problem that has all kinds of different solutions that people with different identities can get behind. I feel like for so long, the discussion around climate has been: here's the one problem, here's the one solution, and here are the very few people who can talk about it. But now, we’re getting to see kids activated, we’re seeing Indigenous communities protesting pipelines, and I’m seeing people who look more like me on television screens talking about their expertise on the science, or in organizing, or the economics of the issue. That’s hopeful to me.

KM: I am trying to do my part to use whatever power I have to really pass the mic because I think that's what we need to do. It’s not only the right thing to do in terms of equity, but it's the right thing to do in terms of solving these problems.