That dire phrase from glaciologist Jason Box was pretty much all it took for Esquire contributor John H. Richardson to get worked up all over again about climate change. In fact, the veteran features writer got freaked out enough to write the frightening article "When The End Of Human Civilization Is Your Day Job," in which he talked to some of the world's leading climatologists about why they're not yelling louder from the rooftops about how bad things have gotten -- and what that means for our world.
The evidence of climate change is, literally, all around us, from rising seas to melting glaciers and more powerful destructive weather events. But it’s such a big issue most people aren’t really sure what they can, or should do, especially since some leading politicians keeping telling us climate change isn’t even a thing.
Given this dangerous attitude, Richardson wondered why so many of the scientists who’ve dedicated their lives to studying man’s effect on our planet have just kind of clammed up. Why weren’t they making a bigger ruckus? Were they exhausted (or depressed) after years of being ignored and threatened by the powers-that-be?
"With a war or a shooting you hope that the long arc of history will bend towards justice," Richardson told MTV News about his work covering the Mike Brown shooting and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, news events that had a beginning, middle and end. In those cases, change was likely to happen — whether it was a protest, legal action or aid. "[With climate change it seems] harder because the natural impulse is for people to focus on their jobs and making a living and push out the constant noise that distracts us."
Given the wakeup call that Richardson received when working on his article, we asked him how he felt after talking to the scientists — and what we can do to make sure our leaders do hear the deafening drumbeat.
MTV: As journalists we get close to our subjects, so when you hear 'the sky is falling' you must feel it emotionally. How did you feel after completing this story?
Richardson: I was incredibly depressed and I found myself avoiding doing interviews where my [20-something daughters] could hear me -- or leaving books on the coffee table they could see.
MTV: What do you think when you see the global mobilization to stop the spread of something like Ebola last year, versus the seeming inaction in the face of 400,000 deaths attributed to climate change each year?
Richardson: When you see someone dying in front of you from a direct and simple cause, it's easier to deal with [that] than famine or drought or a more indirect cause. It's overwhelming and frightening and kind of distant, but we do see it every day with plants and animals and species dying.
MTV: Why aren't more people listening to these scientists?
Richardson: A lot of people are listening and most people believe global warming is a problem and they'd like to see it addressed. But governments and the biggest companies in the world don't want to deal with it like they didn't want to deal with the fact that tobacco causes cancer. The scientists I talked to made a lot of arguments that there's been a lot of progress and a lot of governments are doing things and certainly the pressure builds as the economic consequences rise. I was interested in the disconnect between the things we're saying and the way we're saying it. Do we run calmly out of the building or do we run screaming?
MTV: You basically describe these scientists as showing signs of clinical depression and PTSD, right?
Richardson: I think so... some of them. I got letters from a number of them in support of [the article] saying, 'We can't despair.' The closer you are to it, the harder it is to face. I was really moved by [the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University] Michael Mann, who choked up a few times and his determination to stay positive.
MTV: Scientists are trained to be problem solvers. But what can you do when you find the solution and nobody wants it?
Richardson: For the overwhelming majority, it's not that people are rejecting their solutions, it's more bad faith actors... There's no evidence that would convince them... or apparently [most] of our presidential candidates.
MTV: Do you worry about the fact that so many of the candidates don't believe climate change is real?
Richardson: Of course. It's astonishing. These guys are basically in the same position as cancer patients who've gone to 100 doctors and 97 percent say, 'You're gonna die' [and they reject that answer]. But then they get in their cars and fly on planes because they love science as long as it doesn't interfere with their interests.
MTV: Why do you think Box’s comment hit such a nerve? Does it take a climatologist dropping the f-bomb to make people take notice?
Richardson: Kind of. You don't go to see movies or read novels about percentages or statistical predictions. We go to see people struggling with problems and trying to survive. Because the way science is structured... these guys have given us a very bloodless message, but it's not their fault.
MTV: What can young people who are going to inherit this mess do to bring attention to the problem?
Richardson: They can definitely join an organization like 350.org. It's about shaking us out of our individual consumerist passivity and becoming organized.
Personally, just before you called I was looking for the next rally I could go to. Organizing your own 350.org group and using that as a beginning of political organization to help move things in your city. As things get worse organized groups can leverage the voice of the people who haven’t been heard and make a difference. Join an environmental group or [radical environmental collective] Deep Green Resistance.
MTV: Given what you've learned, I have to ask, are we indeed f---ed?
Richardson: Even the oil companies are well aware of what’s going on. I expect that as the ocenas rise in Florida, Mississippi and Texas the most immediately threatened people will start getting more pissed and there will be [protests] and that sort of thing will help change the equation.
I do hope that as things get worse the world rises up. I’m not with [University of Arizona biology professor Guy] McPherson who said it’s over. It's always better to go down fighting.