Greg Craven: What’s the Worst that Could Happen?

Greg Craven. 15 Dec 2010. What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Veteran of the Climate Change Culture Wars Explains Why America Isn’t Listening and What To Do About It. American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.

Nothing we’ve done has worked. Giving information hasn’t worked. Climate crusades haven’t worked. Striving for social change hasn’t worked. Pleading on behalf of future generations, and all the other species on the planet which are threatened by the next great extinction from us–on the magnitude of the Permian extinction, where over 90% of every organism on the world perished.

If you share even a pale shade of that sentiment, it is your supreme moral duty to come down into the fray and fight for your life, your kids’ lives, and our life, because the civilization that has so generously granted you your position–make no mistake–your position of extreme privilege in the history of humankind, the privilege of pursuing your own selfish gratification in the pleasure of finding things out. . . . That civilization is teetering over the precipice, staring down into the abyss. You must be the hand that reaches out, grabs hold, and pulls us back from the brink of extinction. The hand of a hero. You.

Full article:

This is not a talk. This is a primal scream. For help. For salvation. For the lives of my children. And I will not apologize. I will not yield. I will charge the stage and scream my message if I must. I am in the zone. I am over the edge. I am gone. I am enlightened. I am maniacal. I am insane. I am terrified at what I have just become. All of my life has been to serve this single moment. And you may need to forcibly remove me to the hospital, screaming like a madman. But you will not stop me. For I have revelation to bring.

I am a fanatic of science. I love you, and what you do. What I bring you is the loving but eviscerating criticism of the outsider looking in. So I’m going to give you the gift of brutal frankness. Because you have done an abhorrent job at communicating climate change to the public so far. Because what you’ve been giving them up to now, as a scientist, is information. And with the terrifying divergence between public opinion and scientific opinion in the last few years, with public opinion in the U.S. plummeting over the last several years, that strategy clearly is not working.

So it is time for a radical change in tactics. [Applause.]

Don’t applaud just yet, I’m about to call you insane. [Mild laughter.]

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. And I’m sorry you have to hear this, but it’s best to come from a friend. You have become insane. You have brought them information when they needed emotion. What you must bring them now, as a citizen, as a father, as a mother, as an aunt, as a grandparent, who knows better than anyone else what the physical world will bring in the future, you must give them yourself.

This talk was supposed to be about becoming better communicators about climate change. My answer to the question “What can be done about it?”—about America not listening—was “You must become better communicators by understanding the psychology of the individual, the foibles of the brain, how they are exploited by the ruthless denial machine, and how we can work with that.”

And in short order I’d vomited up 20,000 words, just to give the briefest of overviews. I am filled with it. But when the hard drive with the only copy of my speech text on it crashed at 1 a.m. this morning, I realized, thankfully, that that would have been the wrong speech to give. Tragically ineffective.  Because I realized, as the result of two watershed conversations yesterday, one with a marketing expert on the plane, and one with an atmospheric chemist at dinner, that my message to you now is that you must stop communicating as scientists. You must begin communicating as citizens, as a father, as a mother, with whatever feelings are in your heart, with your fears, speak to them of your hopes, let them know about your befuddlement at the divergence. And tell them frankly, forthrightly, sincerely, about any terror that you are ignoring, with your head down, soldiering on, hoping that someone, somewhere, sometime will fix the problem.

Well I’ve got sober news for you. You, in this room, in this community of science—you are that someone. You are the ones we have been waiting for. You are the last battle reserves in civilization’s last stand. And you damn well need to saddle up and come down off that hill as the cavalry, to turn the tide of battle when all hope seems lost. So sound your bugle call and come down into the bloody fray.

My journey in climate change has gone from dawning realization, to “holy shit!” to terror and fierce urgency to protect my children, and now sadly, inevitably, to despair. And to leaving the ship to itself, to build my lifeboat for my family, before what others have wrought take us below the icy water. You say you want to have an effect on the public? If you trod a journey at all similar to mine, think, visualize, take five minutes to meditate on the impact it would have if you took off your goddamned scientist hat for just a moment, and put on your citizen hat. And said frankly to the public through the largest mouthpiece you can: “As a scientist, here’s my understanding. As a citizen, here’s my hope, my vision. And as a mother, here’s my contingency plan, here’s my lifeboat.”

If you obliterated your comfort zone and the hard line of purity of your scientific sensibilities–that you do cling to, with the faith of a god–and you actually went forth as an actual advocate, a sentiment normally anathema to the constitution of a scientist, imagine if you went out into the fray bearing your heart, with your emotion and the authority of your understanding as your weapon. For what you’ve been giving them as a scientist up to now is information, and with that increasing divergence between public and scientific opinion, we must change.

Shall we continue with that? You have been insane. . . . Please—come back to the world. Nothing we’ve done has worked. Giving information hasn’t worked. Climate crusades haven’t worked. Striving for social change hasn’t worked. Pleading on behalf of future generations, and all the other species on the planet which are threatened by the next great extinction from us–on the magnitude of the Permian extinction, where over 90% of every organism on the world perished. Despite all our hopes, even finally getting an enlightened leader, who gets it, who gets the problem, and installs a perfect team of science advisors. Even that hasn’t worked, and that seemed our last best hope. In fact we’ve gone backwards.

So . . . what hope do we have left? You. And the gravitas that your scientific authority brings you. It is an unbearable burden to you, I know. It is inconceivable to you. It is anathema.

But sometimes burdens that cannot be borne must be borne, because there is no remaining option. That moment is now.

I went through the harshest, most unimaginable hell doing my climate change crusade over the last three years. Three and a half years ago I posted a single innocuous video on YouTube—a ten minute whiteboard lecture drawing a decision grid for risk analysis, proposing how confused but sincere laypeople can possibly make sense out of the shouting match about climate change when they don’t have the expertise, they don’t have the time, they don’t have the training, and they’ve got to get their kids to school. I gave the URL of that video to exactly 153 people: my students, on the last day of the school year. The following Monday it had 10,000 views. As of now, three and a half years later, it has over 8 million.

If you harness the power of the viral–if you design whatever best, most authentic message you can from your heart and your fears and your intellect, and you insert into that message “Please—pass this on. And when you do, tell them to pass it on, and preserve that message. . . .” Then you touch ten people, they each touch ten people, and as I’m sure you’re aware, in just 5 steps that’s over 100,000 people that have been touched. By you. That is power. Claim it.

The reason it was hell for three and half years is because I was also a teacher. And I was supposed to be a father, and a husband, although I abrogated all three of those responsibilities to work through the night, every night, for weeks and months at the end. Abusing my body with a case of red bull every 24 hours, and sleeping 2 hours, and then continuing. Because I had that fierce urgency that the time has passed. That with the inertia of policy, of social change, of energy infrastructure, of the collapse of carbon emissions, and of the inertia of the climate system, by the time you realize it is your last stand, by the time you can identify what is indeed your last chance—because we’ve been saying it for years, devaluing its effect—it is in the past. It can only be identified with certainty in hindsight.

And you’ve got to know: the public requires certainty before making a decision. They misunderstand the basic nature of science, and that science cannot provide certainty–it can only provide “good enough to go on.” So tell them that. Unhitch them from the con man in their brains that keeps them holding on to something that they can never get from science, which is “The Answer.”

So why did I go through that hell? Why did I knowingly and deliberately choose to inflict grievous harm to my wife, my children, and my health? Why did I do it? You might guess I did it for the security of my daughters. You might guess I did it for personal satisfaction. Or ego. You might guess I did it for moral absolution so that I could say I did all I could. But the brutal fact is: I did it because I couldn’t not do it. Every minute of every day I realized that I was constitutionally incapable of not doing this, because it concerned my two beautiful daughters and their safety. Because the decision to have kids is the decision to have your heart walking around raw outside of you for the rest of your life. And I discovered that I have a Papa Bear button and I will go through anything, I will sacrifice anything, I will bear the impossible and destroy anything that gets between me and their safety. And at this point in the game, I will abandon ship and run for the lifeboat with my family to create what resilience I can for me and mine.

How tragic, how sad, how pathetic that I have come to that. But that pathos has power if it is shared in a way that no information, no data, no evidence can ever bring. You know it is the last stand when the hippie liberals start to collaborate with the survivalist nut jobs. And that’s happening right now. I’m a member of those discussion forums. (Don’t tell anyone please, especially my wife.) [Mild laughter.]

If you share even a pale shade of that sentiment, it is your supreme moral duty to come down into the fray and fight for your life, your kids’ lives, and our life, because the civilization that has so generously granted you your position–make no mistake–your position of extreme privilege in the history of humankind, the privilege of pursuing your own selfish gratification in the pleasure of finding things out. . . . That civilization is teetering over the precipice, staring down into the abyss. You must be the hand that reaches out, grabs hold, and pulls us back from the brink of extinction. The hand of a hero. You.

You must stop selfishly pursuing your pleasure in finding things out. To be frank: fuck your research. We. Need. You. I know I am almost certain to outrage you with my impertinence and the audacity of my message. And my word choice, for substituting ‘fuck for ‘screw’. [Mild laughter.] And that’s the lesson you must absorb into the fiber of your being, for the meaning of communication is not what you intend, or the information. The meaning of communication is the response it elicits in the listener. And that’s where we have failed. So while you may be likely to forget the details of my rant, you will always feel the emotional aftertaste of it. And that is the purpose of communicating the science of climate change to the lay public. To give them an emotional aftertaste.

Every single time I’ve spoken, and caused a huge emotional impact–I’ve had people come up to me crying, saying that’s the best speech they’ve ever heard in their lives, and I thought I had bombed the speech! I’d done it at the last minute, my script wasn’t complete, I’d fumbled it, I’d gone over time, I’d talked too fast. I was horrified. And people came up saying, “Thank you. You changed my life!” What the hell? What was going on? So I asked, a bunch. And they all said it was because I had opened my heart to them. Because I was authentic. Because I came alive when I was talking about my daughters.

Note: none of those are intellectual things. None of those are even information. The are not abstract, they are concrete. They are not in the future, they are in the present. They are now. They’re not a concern. They are a terror. They are a fierce and eviscerating urgency. What they are is impacting. What they are is the potential to spread like a virus and enlist an army to fight the war for civilization itself, and for you and your family along with it. You are not doing it for “the children.” You are doing it for your children.

Because you can’t not do it. Your role, your job–the one we have assigned you and gladly supported–has always been to stand on the hill overlooking the bloody battlefield and give reconnaissance and convey information about what’s ahead. But there comes a time in the last stand for every single support troop, no matter how far removed, to pick up a weapon, come down into the fray, and fight to the death for what they stand for. To charge into the face of annihilation itself and fight with their teeth, tearing out the jugular of their enemy with their bloody mouth if they have no weapons left. That time is now.

If you do not believe that, if you do not feel that, I challenge you to be intellectually honest–that part of you that you hold up as better than any other profession, and I support you in that opinion–you are the only rational thinkers on the planet. Beware, psychological research shows that people don’t generally make decisions rationally. If you don’t agree with this–that this is the time to radically challenge your comfort zone, and your traditional mores of never letting feelings or opinions on policy pass your lips–I’m not going say “If not now, then when?” I’m going to say: detail an operational definition of a test to test whether a situation would merit that extreme action or not. Come up with the characteristics. And then I defy you to compare them to the situation now. If you do that, forget everything I’ve said. I absolve you. That’s all I ask. But if your intellectually honest operational definition tells you that the time is now. . . .

You shall spill your blood. You shall soak the earth with your viscera. You shall scream the alarm until your throat runs raw. And then you shall pick up rocks and bang them together as the alarm until your hands become a bloody pulp. What shall be your future regrets if you choose? Will they be that you stood by, hopeful, desperate, unaffected, impotent while your children were slaughtered before you? Or will it be that you went too far, destroyed your career, your life, in your panic to save them?

This is your power. This is your purpose. This is your insignificant role in an infinite, uncaring universe. You will not be denied. You will charge the stage of the world and scream your message if you must. This is the most important thing here. This is the most important thing now. And I shall not yield. I shall not back down. I shall stand. And I will be heard. Because I have need to be all afire, for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.

Incidentally, nothing you can say critically after this can touch me. It’s strange to feel what it’s like to be inside the madman. I’ve always wondered. But it struck at 1 a.m. this morning. And I know what the face of god–which I don’t believe in–but this morning, for the first time in my life, I feel that level of faith: that this is what must be done.

[Sigh of relief that this exceedingly uncomfortable speech is done.]

I am Greg Craven. I am my daughter’s . . . [unable to speak] . . . I’m kind of exhausted. . . .

I am Greg Craven. Hear my name. I am my daughter’s father. On behalf of my children, please–I beseech you–and I thank you for your time. Sorry.

[Applause. Polite? Mildly enthusiastic? Scornful? Happy this ridiculously inappropriate rant is done? (I’m told this was the first time the word “fuck” has ever been used onstage at an AGU meeting, with hundreds of thousands of scientific presentations given over the decades.  So . . . I’ve got that going for me.)]

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