The Heat Is Online

The Despair of the Scientists (Conclusion)

The Despair of the Scientists (Conclusion):

The spring day is glorious, sunny and cool, and the avenues of Copenhagen are alive with tourists. Trying to make the best of things, Jason Box says we should blow off the getting-to-know-you lunch and go for a bike ride. Thirty minutes later he locks up the bikes at the entrance to Freetown, a local anarchist community that has improbably become one of Copenhagen's most popular tourist destinations. Grabbing a couple beers at a restaurant, he leads the way to a winding lake and a small dock. The wind is blowing, swans flap their wings just off the beach, and Box sits with the sun on his face and his feet dangling over the sand.

"There's a lot that's scary," he says, running down the list—the melting sea ice, the slowing of the conveyor belt. Only in the last few years were they able to conclude that Greenland is warmer than it was in the twenties, and the unpublished data looks very hockey-stick-ish. He figures there's a 50 percent chance we're already committed to going beyond 2 degrees centigrade and agrees with the growing consensus that the business-as-usual trajectory is 4 or 5 degrees. "It's, um... bad. Really nasty."

The big question is, What amount of warming puts Greenland into irreversible loss? That's what will destroy all the coastal cities on earth. The answer is between 2 and 3 degrees. "Then it just thins and thins enough and you can't regrow it without an ice age. And a small fraction of that is already a huge problem—Florida's already installing all these expensive pumps." (According to a recent report by a group spearheaded by Hank Paulson and Robert Rubin, secretaries of the Treasury under Bush Jr. and Bill Clinton, respectively, $23 billion worth of property in Florida may be destroyed by flooding within thirty-five years.)

Box is only forty-two, but his pointed Danish beard makes him look like a count in an old novel, someone who'd wear a frock coat and say something droll about the woman question. He seems detached from the sunny day, like a tourist trying to relax in a strange city. He also seems oddly detached from the things he's saying, laying out one horrible prediction after another without emotion, as if he were an anthropologist regarding the life cycle of a distant civilization. But he can't keep his anger in check for long and keeps obsessively returning to two topics:

"We need the deniers to get out of the way. They are risking everyone's future.... The Koch Brothers are criminals.... They should be charged with criminal activity because they're putting the profits of their business ahead of the livelihoods of millions of people, and even life on earth."

Like Parmesan, Box was hugely relieved to be out of the toxic atmosphere of the U. S. "I remember thinking, What a relief, I don't have to bother with this bullshit anymore." In Denmark, his research is supported through the efforts of conservative politicians. "But Danish conservatives are not climate-change deniers," he says.

The other topic he is obsessed with is the human suffering to come. Long before the rising waters from Greenland's glaciers displace the desperate millions, he says more than once, we will face drought-triggered agricultural failures and water-security issues—in fact, it's already happening. Think back to the 2010 Russian heat wave. Moscow halted grain exports. At the peak of the Australian drought, food prices spiked. The Arab Spring started with food protests, the self-immolation of the vegetable vendor in Tunisia. The Syrian conflict was preceded by four years of drought. Same with Darfur. The migrants are already starting to stream north across the sea—just yesterday, eight hundred of them died when their boat capsized—and the Europeans are arguing about what to do with them. "As the Pentagon says, climate change is a conflict multiplier."

His home state of Colorado isn't doing so great, either. "The forests are dying, and they will not return. The trees won't return to a warming climate. We're going to see megafires even more, that'll be the new one—megafires until those forests are cleared."

However dispassionately delivered, all of this amounts to a lament, the scientist's version of the mothers who stand on hillsides and keen over the death of their sons. In fact, Box adds, he too is a climate refugee. His daughter is three and a half, and Denmark is a great place to be in an uncertain world—there's plenty of water, a high-tech agriculture system, increasing adoption of wind power, and plenty of geographic distance from the coming upheavals. "Especially when you consider the beginning of the flood of desperate people from conflict and drought," he says, returning to his obsession with how profoundly changed our civilization will be.

Despite all this, he insists that he approaches climate mostly as an intellectual problem. For the first decade of his career, even though he's part of the generation of climate scientists who went to college after Al Gore's Earth in the Balance, he stuck to teaching and research. He only began taking professional risks by working with Greenpeace and by joining the protest against Keystone when he came to the intellectual conclusion that climate change is a moral issue. "It's unethical to bankrupt the environment of this planet," he says. "That's a tragedy, right?" Even now, he insists, the horror of what is happening rarely touches him on an emotional level... although it has been hitting him more often recently. "But I—I—I'm not letting it get to me. If I spend my energy on despair, I won't be thinking about opportunities to minimize the problem."

His insistence on this point is very unconvincing, especially given the solemnity that shrouds him like a dark coat. But the most interesting part is the insistence itself—the desperate need not to be disturbed by something so disturbing. Suddenly, a welcome distraction. A man appears on the beach in nothing but jockey shorts, his skin bluish. He says he's Greek and he's been sleeping on this beach for seven months and will swim across the lake for a small tip. A passing tourist asks if he can swim all the way.

"Of course."
"Let me see."
"How much money?"
"I give you when you get back."
"Give me one hundred."
"Yeah, yeah. When you get back."

The Greek man splashes into the water and Box seems amused, laughing for the first time. It's the relief of normal goofy human life, so distant from the dark themes that make up his life's work.

Usually it's a scientific development that smacks him, he says. The first was in 2002, when they discovered that meltwater was getting into the bed of the Greenland Ice Sheet and lubricating its flow. Oh, you say, it can be a wet bed, and then the implications sunk in: The whole damn thing is destabilizing. Then in 2006, all of the glaciers in the southern half of Greenland began to retreat at two and three times their previous speed. Good Lord, it's happening so fast. Two years later, they realized the retreat was fueled by warm water eroding the marine base ice—which is also what's happening to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Just thinking about it makes him gloomy. "That's unstoppable," he says. "Abrupt sea-level rise is upon us."
The Greek man returns with surprising speed, emerging from the sea like a god in a myth, laughing and boasting. The Greeks are masters of the waters! Pay me!

"I'm gonna give this guy a hundred kroner," Box says.

He makes sure the tourists pay, too, and comes back smiling. He knows a Greek guy who's just like that, he says, very proud and jolly. He envies him sometimes.

He leads the way to a quieter spot on the lakeside, passing through little hippie villages woven together by narrow dirt lanes—by consensus vote, there are no cars in Freetown, which makes it feel pleasantly medieval, intimate, and human-scaled. He lifts a beer to his lips and gazes over the lake and the happy people lazing in the afternoon sun. "The question of despair is not very nice to think about," he says. "I've just disengaged that to a large degree. It's kind of like a half-denial."

He mentions the Norse proverb again, but a bulwark against despair so often cited becomes its own form of despair. You don't dredge up proverbs like that unless you're staying awake at night.

He nods, sighing. This work often disturbs his sleep, driving him from his bed to do something, anything. "Yeah, the shit that's going down has been testing my ability to block it."

He goes quiet for a moment. "It certainly does creep in, as a parent," he says quietly, his eyes to the ground.

But let's get real, he says, fossil fuels are the dominant industry on earth, and you can't expect meaningful political change with them in control. "There's a growing consensus that there must be a shock to the system."

So the darker hopes arise—maybe a particularly furious El Niño or a "carbon bubble" where the financial markets realize that renewables have become more scalable and economical, leading to a run on fossil-fuel assets and a "generational crash" of the global economy that, through great suffering, buys us more time and forces change.

The Box family dinner isn't going to happen after all, he says. When it comes to climate change at the very late date of 2015, there are just too many uncomfortable things to say, and his wife, Klara, resents any notion that she is a "climate migrant."
This is the first hint that his brashness has caused tension at home.

"Well, she..." He takes a moment, considering. "I'll say something like, 'Man, the next twenty years are going to be a hell of a ride,' or 'These poor North African refugees flooding to Europe,' and how I anticipate that flux of people to double and triple, and will the open borders of Europe change? And she'll acknowledge it... but she's not bringing it up like I am."

Later, she sends a note responding to a few questions. She didn't want to compare herself to the truly desperate refugees who are drowning, she says, and the move to Denmark really was for the quality of life. "Lastly, the most difficult question to answer is about Jason's mental health. I'd say climate change, and more broadly the whole host of environmental and social problems the world faces, does affect his psyche. He feels deeply about these issues, but he is a scientist and a very pragmatic, goal-oriented person. His style is not to lie awake at night worrying about them but to get up in the morning (or the middle of the night) and do something about it. I love the guy for it :)"

So even when you are driven to your desk in the middle of the night, quoting Norse proverbs, when you are among the most informed and most concerned, the ordinary tender mercies of the home conspire in our denial. We pour our energy into doing our jobs the best we can, avoid unpleasant topics, keep up a brave face, make compromises with even the best societies, and little by little the compartmentalization we need to survive the day adds one more bit of distance between the comfortable now and the horrors ahead. So Box turns out to be a representative figure after all. It's not enough to understand the changes that are coming. We have to find a way to live with them.

"In Denmark," Box says, "we have the resilience, so I'm not that worried about my daughter's livelihood going forward. But that doesn't stop me from strategizing about how to safeguard her future—I've been looking at property in Greenland. As a possible bug-out scenario."

Turns out a person can't own land in Greenland, just a house on top of land. It's a nice thought, a comforting thought—no matter what happens, the house will be there, safely hidden at the top of the world.

Published in the August 2015 issue.