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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 7/14/15

Should Climate Scientists Tell the Full Truth?

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So in part, Schmidt's disapproval of Box's tweet was strategic: He rightly felt that if climate scientists publicly announce that all is lost, they will undermine the motivation of people to do what they can.

But in part, Schmidt's disagreement is based on a difference of opinion about whether there really is no hope. For example, he believes the situation in the Arctic is not as dire as Box thinks. And although he recognizes that, in spite of all the scientific warnings, business as usual has continued, Schmidt says that "things can change much quicker than people think," citing changed attitudes about gay marriage as a case in point.

However, this is a poor analogy. Whereas overcoming the prohibition of gay marriage did not threaten the bottom line of any powerful companies, the idea of overcoming the fossil-fuel economy is so threatening that fossil-fuel companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to avoid this eventuality.

But Schmidt has a more valid argument. Although civilization will indeed be destroyed if the world continues with business as usual, "There is time to build sustainable solutions," said Schmidt, to at least some of the problems.

If all hope is indeed lost, any such solutions will not make any long-term difference. But the truth is that nobody knows for sure whether the effort to save civilization is already futile. This may indeed be the case.

But for all we know, it is also possible that, although climate change will bring about multiple horrors, including the death of large numbers of people, a rapid and worldwide mobilization would allow for the continuation of civilization in a form in which worthwhile lives would be possible.

Given this possibility, our scientists should not suggest that all is lost, because retaining hope that a worthwhile civilization could still be salvaged would be a condition for success. If we become convinced that there is no hope whatsoever, we will certainly not do the many kinds of things that will be necessary if a civilization of some sort is to continue.

Avoiding Paralysis of Both Types

But the importance of holding this degree of hope does not mean that scientists should not tell people the seriousness of the situation. To conceal the full truth would make scientists behaviorally not much different from the moderate climate deniers, who assure people that the changes will be minor, so that society need not switch to a completely different energy economy.

It is understandable that governments do not want scientists to distress the populace. But it may be necessary for humanity to become distressed, if there is to be any chance of its taking action quickly and vigorously enough to save itself. Indeed, in some cases governments do not want their scientists telling the full truth because, if their citizens believe it, the government may be forced to take action.

The present approach by governments, the media, and even the climate science community -- reporting some findings but not so as to get most people alarmed - has not worked. Neither the media nor the people have become focused sufficiently on the threat to force their governments to engage in the full-scale mobilization needed if there is to be any hope.

Many pundits say that telling people the full truth will frighten them so much as to paralyze them. But the present method has left them with a paralysis of ignorance. One type of paralysis is as unhelpful as the other.

Telling the Full Truth

Instead, scientists, governments, and the media should treat people as adults, knowing that only if they know the truth do they have a change of acting appropriately. They should tell them the full truth, while at the same time telling them the full truth about how completely and inexpensively the transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy could come about (which I laid out in Chapter 17 of my recent book).

Most of us, if we have cancer, want our doctors to tell us the truth, so that we can decide upon the best course of treatment. Or, if the cancer has gone too far to be treated, most of us want to know this fact, so that we can do all the things we want to do before we die -- getting our affairs in order, saying good-bye to friends and loved ones, and doing remaining things on our bucket lists.

Some climate scientists, and commentators about climate science, have spoken forthrightly. For example:

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David Ray Griffin is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Graduate University. He has written 30 books. His most recent book is Unprecedented: Can Civilization Survive the CO2 Crisis? (Clarity (more...)

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