A letter that I did not send to my dear uncle, who sent me a climate change denial article from a right-wing copypasta content farm

1523-4 woodblock of a skeleton playing a drum next to a well dressed man and woman

The Lady by Hans Holbein

Dear Uncle,

I guess you sent me this article because you see how worried I am about climate change on twitter and you don’t believe it’s happening. I remember you talking about the emails hacked from the Climate Research Unit at UEA several years ago, but I didn’t realize you were skeptical about the effects of climate change.

I am very sorry to say that climate change is happening. I don’t want to believe it’s true and I don’t want to believe it’s as bad as it is. My whole PhD is premised on the idea that maybe [a really important species] would be able to adapt better than our projections said because of [cool feature of their biology]. (I don’t have the answer yet, but it’s not looking promising.)

I’ve spent the last 15 years learning about biology and ecology and the natural world and participating in the scientific process and working with other scientists. Obviously, I don’t know everything and science isn’t perfect. But most of us are trying our best and aren’t out to trick anyone. I believe climate change is happening and so does nearly every scientist I’ve ever known. We have disagreements about how fast it’s happening and what its exact effects will be and if we can survive it, but we agree that it’s going to be very, very bad.

I’m so convinced climate change is happening that I spend a great deal of time that I should be working on my PhD or that I could be doing things I love like reading novels and dancing instead writing letters to politicians and advocating for policies that would help slow climate change or at least help us adapt. I’m so convinced that I cry about it and am terrified about the world I’ll grow old in. I’m so convinced that I’ve tried to convince my mother to move (and I think you all probably should as well, especially your kids) because the southeast is going to get so much hotter and flood and fire prone during my lifetime that it’s going to severely disrupt the economy and make people very sick.

And I’m not alone. The news doesn’t spend a lot of time talking to scientists about how they feel personally about climate change, but it’s bleak. We give dry presentations and cry together over dinner at how many plants died at our study sites. We talk about fears for our children or choosing not to have them. I’m afraid of what the world is going to be like in 20 years and I’m grieving the ecosystems dying right in front of us.

The article you sent me says that the recent National Climate Assessment is based on cherry picked data and bad models and bad science and that fossil fuels have done a lot of good. It claims that all this noise about climate change is just a ploy to control politics. It isn’t, though an emergency of this scale really should affect politics.

The climate models were right before the internal combustion engine was invented

I know it can seem like everything about climate change is based on these overly complex computer models run by scientists who only care about getting their next grant, but those computer models are just fiddly details.

We knew that using fossil fuels and such could cause global warming from before the US Civil War – more than 150 years before we were able to build the complex global models of climate that we’re now using to figure out exactly how global warming will change regional and local climates.

The earliest calculations of how much carbon dioxide warmed up the planet were done by a Swedish scientist in the 1890s. His predictions weren’t perfect, but they’re not that far off from our current models. And the simple computer models we built in the 70s and 80s predict basically the same global temperature increase as the highly complex ones we have today.

(We keep building more and more complex models with more and more things because we are trying to understand more and more local effects and also feedback cycles – what does it mean for the world to warm 2 or 6 or 10 degrees? When will the ice melt? How will that affect ocean currents? How will the ocean currents full of meltwater affect the speed and sinuousness of the jetstream? Will the southwest get wetter or drier? Will there be more hurricanes or fewer? What could the economic impacts be?)

Perhaps that snippet of scientific history hasn’t convinced you to take climate change seriously. After all, even if we know that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases heat up the planet, maybe we’ve done our math wrong and it’s actually much slower than we think.

But what if the models are wrong and climate change isn’t a big deal?

So, what if the models are wrong about how much and how fast climate change is happening? We need to compare the risk of inaction vs action if we’re right and if we’re wrong.

What is the risk of inaction if we are right about the magnitude and speed of climate change impacts? Well, you could read the fourth NCA to find out! It does not, as the article you sent me put it “sound like something kicked around in a Hollywood brainstorming session for a science fiction thriller.” It is sober and measured and accessible – and ultimately very conservative in its discussion of potential impacts. Here’s a representative snippet from the chapter on climate change impacts occurring and expected in the Southeast

Embedded in these land- and seascapes is a rich cultural history developed over generations by the many communities that call this region home. However, these beaches and bayous, fields and forests, and cities and small towns are all at risk from a changing climate. These risks vary in type and magnitude from place to place, and while some climate change impacts, such as sea level rise and extreme downpours, are being acutely felt now, others, like increasing exposure to dangerously high temperatures—often accompanied by high humidity—and new local diseases, are expected to become more significant in the coming decades.

If our models are right and we don’t do anything, the impacts from climate change will be big and bad this century and downright apocalyptic in the next. The only reason not to act would be if you believe the impacts of trying to slow or stop climate change are worse than the risks from climate change itself.

The biggest things we can to do as a society to slow climate change are:

  • educate girls and make sure women have access to contraceptives and reproductive healthcare, including abortion
  • change the kind of chemicals we use as refrigerants (like in air conditioners) (and switch as many of them as we can to things like ground source heat pumps).
  • switch electricity generation from coal and natural gas to solar and wind as fast as we can, reducing air pollution in the process and creating a bunch of jobs
  • Eat more beans and less red meat while wasting less food – cheaper and healthier!
  • Stop burning tropical forests – most are being burnt to grow soybeans to feed cows, so this is almost a natural outcome of the previous goal
  • Bring back silvopasture farming techniques – supporting small farmers and rural areas and loosening the exploitation by companies like Smithfield.

None of these have costs higher than the ones our models predict climate change will exact, in dollars, in lives, in social and cultural disruption. Most are actually things we’d want to do regardless of climate change. Many negative effects are things that are happening anyway.

Consider what happens

If we don’t act and the models are right, we face a serious existential threat. Over the next centuries, billions of people will die in extreme weather events, wars, and famines, the economy will collapse worldwide, we could lose a great deal of technology and civilization, and could even go extinct. Large parts of the tropics and subtropics will become uninhabitable and billions will be forced to migrate by rising sea levels and increasing temperatures. Immigration by climate refugees will completely overwhelm many countries. Many, many species will go extinct.

If we don’t act and the models are wrong, we gradually decarbonize the economy anyway while demographic, habitat destruction, and agricultural problems continue unabated. The transition to solar and wind will continue, relatively slowly, because technology has advanced already to the point that it’s cheaper than at least coal already. As fossil fuels are gradually depleted and renewable tech continues to improve, the transition will speed up. This will gradually reduce the millions of deaths every year due to air pollution. Depending on the speed of transition, we will have to retrain or support people and communities who used to be dependent on fossil fuel extraction – or consign them to lives of poverty and us all to political unrest. Hundreds of millions more women will have children they weren’t ready to have and lack education and opportunities, holding back their countries’ political and economic development. Industrial agriculture will continue to destroy habitat and small farms and suck resources out of rural areas. The loss of rainforests will cause the loss of many incredible species and result in changes to global weather patterns that could devastate some agricultural regions. Obesity and metabolic diseases will continue to increase, along with associated healthcare costs.

If we act and the models are right, we’re still going to continue to see a lot of climate change impacts because we’ve just waited too long to act, but the effects won’t be so catastrophic. Fewer people will die in extreme weather events or of starvation, and immigration will be less overwhelming because fewer people will have to flee sea level rise and increasingly inhospitable climates. We will save millions of lives every year just from the reduction in air pollution from transitioning to solar and wind. Many jobs will be created in order to rapidly transition to solar and wind and improve energy efficiency in buildings. We will have to retrain or support people and communities who used to be dependent on fossil fuel extraction – or consign them to lives of poverty and us all to political unrest. More people will use affordable heat pumps or safe refrigerants to cool (and heat) their homes than before. Dietary improvements in the west will extend lives and reduce healthcare costs from metabolic disease. Population growth will slow, helping countries in the global south reduce emigration and stabilize their political systems. We will lose rare desert habitat to solar farms and some birds to wind farms, but much less than unmitigated climate change would have caused. Switching so rapidly to renewable energy with today’s technology will mean a lot of mining for rare earth minerals, which will likely cause large areas of environmental destruction in parts of the American west and China – much as uranium mining and coal mining did in the previous century.

If we act and the models are wrong, we will make improvements in agriculture, public health, political stability in tropical and subtropical countries, gender equality, and environmental protection, at the expense of some resource extraction communities. We will deal with the necessary transition away from fossil fuels earlier than we needed to to avoid climate change impacts, possibly with technologies that aren’t as advanced as they would have been had we waited. However, we will save millions of lives every year just from the reduction in air pollution from transitioning to solar and wind. Many jobs will be created in order to rapidly transition to solar and wind and improve energy efficiency in buildings. We will have to retrain or support people and communities who used to be dependent on fossil fuel extraction – or consign them to lives of poverty and us all to political unrest. More people will use affordable heat pumps or safe refrigerants to cool (and heat) their homes than before. Dietary improvements in the west will extend lives and reduce healthcare costs from metabolic disease. Population growth will slow, helping countries in the global south reduce emigration and stabilize their political systems. We will lose rare desert habitat to solar farms and lots of birds to wind farms. Switching so rapidly to renewable energy probably will mean a lot of mining for rare earth minerals, which will cause environmental destruction in parts of the American west and China – much as uranium mining and coal mining did in the previous century. Many species are saved in the rainforests.

You believe that the models are wrong and we we shouldn’t act. You’re afraid that the models are wrong and we will act.

But your fear is actually the very best outcome: the very best situation is if we act to stop climate change and we are wrong about climate change. Acting to stop climate change makes the world better even if climate change doesn’t happen.

(The above assumes, of course, that the models are overpredicting climate change impacts. We are very likely under-predicting the impacts of climate change. Choosing what to do, what to prioritize, if climate change is going to be much worse than we imagine is another discussion.)

I don’t think any of these futures are easy, even the ones where everyone does exactly what I think is politically right and things go perfectly according to plan. We have waited so long to act to stop climate change that we now have to act very fast and no matter what we’ll do, bad things will happen. Fast change is very hard and disruptive. We’re going to face fast change no matter what, but we have a choice, now about what that change looks like. We can choose the change and we can get our collective butts in gear, or we’ll be swept away by changes we didn’t see coming, alone.

What if there were no models?

But perhaps you believe any model of climate change is just wrong. (They are, of course. The only perfect model is the thing itself, but you’re not going to throw out all your maps because they don’t have every pothole in the road on them.)

So then – imagine that we don’t have any of these climate models.

We still know that some gases like carbon dioxide and methane hold more heat than others because anyone can figure that out with some sunshine and bottles filled with different gases on a sunny day and a couple thermometers.

But if no one ever built the kinds of models predicting what adding lots and lots of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere would do, then what should we do if we just don’t know what the result of dumping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will be?

I believe we must act very cautiously. We only have one planet. It is foolish and selfish to take more than the smallest of risks with it.

If we don’t know how much greenhouse gases will warm up our planet or what warming up a planet will do to climate, we just shouldn’t do it until we do understand. Experimenting with the only planet we can currently survive on does not seem sensible.

In our climate-model-less world, we also still know that climate is a complex dynamical system, like the human brain or the power grid, where small changes in one part of the system can cause rather larger changes in another. Bigger changes are quite likely to cause bigger changes. In a world without global climate models, we would want to be very wary of changing levels of temperature-changing gases in our atmosphere much at all.

If we know that greenhouse gases can cause global warming and we know that the global climate system can behave unpredictably, then even if we don’t know how or why or how much change those gases cause, it is irresponsible and dangerous to continue increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.

I want us to fix climate change, but I don’t want you to feel like this

Academics get accused of elitism all the time. And some of that is completely warranted. This next bit is elitist.

I want everyone to take climate change seriously because we have waited so long and so must do so much, so fast to stave off the most unthinkable effects. But part of me doesn’t want to convince you, my dear uncle.

Changing your mind, individually, probably won’t make much difference to whether we get a Green New Deal or not.

But understanding what climate change impacts will look like is horrifying and painful. You’re old enough and well-off enough that you and Aunt ____ will probably be fine as long as your AC keeps going and you don’t move to the coast. I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life terrified for my cousins and your new grandbaby, mourning the changes to the land you love as trees and animals migrate and change and die.

So I’m not going to send you this letter, I’m not going to try to convince you that climate change is real. Facing it is like facing death, and of course I would spare you that if I could.

So live your life, blissfully ignorant and cheerful on the phone about the strange weather lately. Live free from the fear that everything you’ve contributed to and cared about in your life will be gone so soon and live free from the guilt that you supported the political and economic choices that may kill us all.

Botox is not a treatment for anxiety and depression and do not fucking tell me to meditate my migraine away

People act like I get migraines because I’m pissed off and sad and don’t exercise enough, but I actually am pissed off and sad and don’t exercise enough because I get too many fucking migraines.

The Mask by Riddhi Parikh

The Mask by Riddhi Parikh

The framing of research on migraine co-morbidities kills me. People with migraine, especially chronic migraine, tend to have a bunch of other problems, like anxiety, depression, fatigue and sleep problems. Fatigue is just a straight up symptom of migraine and perhaps you, not being a migraine researcher, would think it is too obvious to even mention that being in near constant pain that is exacerbated by things like the noise and motion of your daily commute – not to mention the sound of your own goddamn heartbeat – makes people fucking miserable and exhausted and unable to sleep well.

So you might think that a study on whether a drug that makes people’s migraines better also reduces the “common co-morbidities” of migraine would never have a chance of getting published because it’s equivalent to asking “does fixing a broken leg also help you walk?”

You would be wrong.

Most migraine articles (and the people writing them) seem to assume either that those “co-morbidities” are independently occurring problems in migraine patients or even that patients get migraines because they are anxious, depressed, fatigued, or sleep deprived. So when I saw the headline OnabotulinumtoxinA Effective in Reducing Depression and Anxiety Symptoms in Chronic Migraines, I was torn between rolling my eyes until they got stuck in the back of my head so I never had to deal with another headline that was blatantly pandering to the stock price of Allergan at the expense of my healthcare – and – writing an angry screed about the gendered stigma of migraine and the soul crushing experience of trying to get access to like, life, in the face of it. Because botox does not and cannot treat anxiety, depression, fatigue, and insomnia.

But then I made it through the whirling cesspool of my emotions and realized that despite the headline,the paper is actually pretty strong evidence that the fatigue I experience isn’t happening independently of my migraine. And the depression from being in constant pain and excluded from work and social spheres isn’t causing my migraine.

Because botox does not and cannot treat anxiety, depression, fatigue, and insomnia. If botox fixes migraine co-morbidities, that’s because migraine causes them and botox reduces migraine attacks.

So the next doctor or acquaintance who pushes anti-depressants or sedatives or yoga or meditation or cognitive behavioural therapy on me when I actually need something to soak up all that CGRP my nerves are pumping can go fuck themselves.

There are real feedbacks between migraine symptoms and effects and migraine attacks, but the best point of intervention is at the starting point – the goddamn fucking migraine, not my fucking feelings about migraine.



If voting changed anything they’d abolish it

I’m really enjoying Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad samaritans: the myth of free trade and the secret history of capitalism. In a chapter discussing some serious tension between free markets and democracy, he discusses typical neoliberal policies and how they actually undermine democracy. He’s talking about developing countries and writing from 2008, but I’d argue that neoliberalism undermines democracy in all countries – just look at the last 10 years in North America and the EU.

Neo-liberal economists worry that politics opens the door for perversion of market rationality: inefficient firms or farmers may lobby the parliamentarians to get tarrifs and subsidies, imposing costs on the rest of society that has to buy expensive domestic products; populist politicians may put pressure on the current central bank to ‘print money’ in time for ecection campaign, [etc] …

The neo-liberals solution to this problem is to ‘depoliticize’ the economy. They argue that the very scope of government activity should be reduced – through privatization and liberalization – to a minimal state. In those few areas where it is still allowed to operate, the room for policy discretion should be minimized. … Such restraints can be provided by rigid rules that constrain government choices – for example, a law requiring a balanced budget ….

This next paragraph channels my personal political economist hero, Karl Polanyi.

The first problem with this argument for de-politicization is the assumption that we can clearly know where economics should end and politics should begin. But that is not possible because markets – the domain of economics – are political constructs themselves. Markets are political constructs in so far as all property rights and other rights that underpin them have political origins. … [W]hen neo-liberals  propose de-politicizing the economy, they are presuming that the particular demarcation between economics and politics that they want to draw is the correct one. This is unwarranted.

More importantly for our concern …, in pushing for the depoliticization of the economy, the Bad Samaritans [developed countries like the US and EU members] are undermining democracy. Depoliticization of policy decisions in a democratic polity means – let’s not mince our words – weakening democracy. If all the really important decisions are taken away from democratically elected governments and put in the hands of unelected technocrats in the ‘politically independent’ agencies, what is the point of having democracy? In other words, democracy is acceptable to neo-liberals only in so far as it does not contradict the free market…”

The university hybridized with business and kept only the worst of both

On the one hand, the authors are clearly concerned about the fate of their younger colleagues. On the other hand, I could not avoid the impression that the report considers young scientists not as unique creative individuals with “brains and character, strength and health, happiness and spiritual vitality, interest and motivation, and no one knows what else”, but as colonies of laboratory mice that need to be maintained at a low cost, propagated in needed quantities, and trained for use in the laboratory.

Source: Are scientists a workforce? – Or, how Dr. Frankenstein made biomedical research sick – Lazebnik – 2015 – EMBO reports – Wiley Online Library