Cassandra Weeps

Streams are vulnerable to impact from a changing climate

Read the Report. I did not read the recent report on Climate Change immediately because I study the current and future impact of a rapidly changing climate on the biodiversity of Earth’s rivers and lakes. I just know this stuff. But I overheard a BBC report describing a 3 to 5°C increase increase in global temperature by the end of this century, a rise in temperature that I had heretofore expected over a 500 year time span. Then I read the report and found this: “Without significant reductions, annual average global temperatures could increase by 9°F (5°C) or more by the end of this century compared to preindustrial temperatures.” It took a day for this information to create a full blown anxiety attack. My first anxiety attack and before I proceed, I just want to shout out to those who have them, to let you know that I now understand how debilitating and awful such an event is. Actually, I am surprised that more scientists who study climate change are not just cringing in their basements in fear. Perhaps they are.

haze 3
One major impact from climate change is increased number and severity of forest fires, destroying life, homes, forests, and air quality.

How bad can this get? Check out David Roberts’ TED talk on the issue, but to sum it up a 4 degree Celsius rise in temperature can create a “Hell on Earth”. Certainly, the scientific and lay communities who understand climate change and know what is coming should suffer from the Cassandra Effect. In Greek mythology, Cassandra was the prophetess who foresaw the fall of Troy at the hands of the invading Greek armies. She tried to warn others of the horrors to come only to be driven insane when no one would listen. Today the syndrome that bears her name relates to those who warn others of coming events, in this case based on science and analyses, only to be ignored. Science is not a religion or belief system and climate change is not a mystery sent by Gods as in Cassandra’s case. An excellent overview of the science and model building of climate change was provided by Gavin Schmidt for TED Talks. In fact, scientists and science communicators have worked hard to simplify the relatively difficult mathematics and science of climatology for general understanding. The book Global Weirdness breaks down the processes and impacts of climate change in three page chapters that the average third grade student can understand.

SLC Flood 2014 8
And increased severity and frequency of flooding

My own research has taken me to northern Mongolia where the impact of climate change has already been felt. Rapidly increasing temperatures have changed precipitation patterns and weather resulting in severe winter events called Dzuds, horrific blizzards that destroy herds of sheep, goats, and yaks. I have also taught environmental sciences, presenting simple and basic information on the cause and predicted impacts of climate change. Decades of research and teaching have created an awareness weariness in me, leading to a profound Cassandra effect. My neighbors to either side, in the front and the back have not listened. Most of my students have ignored the science and the large amount of data on climate change. I do not think I have gone insane but am steeped in extreme anxiety and I am not alone. Some of my fellow scientists walk around in a miasma of grief. Others have given up entirely. Many do their best to ignore what they know or sink into cynicism about their fellow humans. I cannot drop out or ignore what is coming because I have children and am committed to protecting biodiversity and aquatic ecosystems. Ways to mitigate or slow down climate change and live a good life are simple and sometimes easy and the stakes are so very high.

Save Winter Sandhills 2014
Extreme weather events like winter blizzards and Dzuds destroy herds and threaten human life.

To paint a bleak picture, just read the report, but here are a few trends that I have recognized. First, people fear changes to their world and are easily swayed; we will go from a democracy to a demagoguery. Second, extreme weather events caused by climate change shall make water scarce in some regions and land scarce in others. And the fights over these limited resources will be fierce. Massive movements of humans across the globe will result in destabilization of governments and harm economies. Mass numbers of humans will die off because they have been forced to live in marginalized landscapes such as river deltas due to scarcity of land. This is not just me making a prediction, the Pentagon has already published reports on the security risks the United States faces related to climate change. And, of course a perusal of the news over the past decade or so will show one that these events are already happening. Most demoralizing to me is that even scientists who know and understand climate change live a high carbon emission lifestyle, myself included.

Subaru wiki share MM
Someday we may all be able to switch to electric cars.

The scientific community should be on the forefront of this fight. We have the most at stake. Just examine what happened to Cassandra. She was driven insane because no one listened, then, to make matters worse, she was captured, enslaved by Agamemnon and returned to Mycenae, finally, to add insult to injury in a way only a Greek myth can, she was killed by Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife. I don’t think that will happen to scientists who share their knowledge of the coming climate catastrophe, but do think that the public will blame us, more like what happens in the modern fable, Nightfall. Originally a short story by Isaac Asimov, later expanded into a full length novel by Asimov and Robert Silverberg, Nightfall tells the story of a planet with two suns that is always bathed in sunlight. Astronomers discover a coming event that will plunge the planet into night and predict widespread panic and societal collapse. No one listens to them and when the foretold event occurs the masses blame the scientists and storm the observatories. I predict that despite decades of warning the public and policy makers of the impacts of climate change, they will turn on us, blame us for not warning them, for not solving this problem. And it is this prediction that makes Cassandra weep.


But echoing Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, I do not think we should go from denial to despair. The ways we can change are a joy. And, I know many scientist and non-scientists alike who already live the life of low carbon footprint. And they are happy. People who take public transport, ride their bikes, or walk to offset the footprint of their Prius, Subaru, or SUV. People who refuse to fly unless absolutely necessary. People who have reduced their intake of meat for a healthier lifestyle. Friends and family who carpool and keep their heating and cooling costs low. Colleagues who work to affect policy with groups such as the Citizens Climate Lobby and I even have a friend who ran for office and won to create a better world for her community. Others have reduced, reduced, reduced their consumption. We are a growing community of climate change activists who seek to stem the tide of catastrophic change not only for this precious Earth but also for those we love who inhabit it. Come join us.


For more reading:

Asimov, I. and R. Silverberg. 1991. Nightfall. Spectra Publications. 339 pp.

Climate Central. 2013. Global Weirdness. Vintage Publications. 224 pp.

Fourth Annual Climate Report. 2018.

Fernandez-Gimenez, M.E., Batkhishig, B., Batbuyan, B. and Ulambayar, T., 2015. Lessons from the dzud: Community-based rangeland management increases the adaptive capacity of Mongolian herders to winter disasters. World Development68, pp.48-65.

Goulden, C.E., Mead, J., Horwitz, R., Goulden, M., Nandintsetseg, B., McCormick, S., Boldgiv, B. and Petraitis, P.S., 2016. Interviews of Mongolian herders and high resolution precipitation data reveal an increase in short heavy rains and thunderstorm activity in semi-arid Mongolia. Climatic Change136(2), pp.281-295.

Nandintsetseg, B., Greene, J.S. and Goulden, C.E., 2007. Trends in extreme daily precipitation and temperature near Lake Hövsgöl, Mongolia. International Journal of Climatology: A Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society27(3), pp.341-347.

Pentagon. 2015. National Security Implications of Climate-Related Risks and a Changing Climate.

TED Talks

Gavin Schmidt

David Roberts

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