L.S. Gardiner is the author of the new book Tales from an Uncertain World: What Other Assorted Disasters Can Teach Us About Climate Change. She works at the UCAR Center for Science Education, and she lives in Boulder, Colorado.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Tales from an Uncertain World?
A: Several years ago I was at a meeting to learn about the latest climate research and what I was hearing was that the catastrophe was looking more insurmountable than ever.
It’s part of my job to help people understand this science, and I’m aware that it can fill people with worry. Realizing that climate change is a problem comes with a possible side effect of feeling helpless and uncertain about what to do.
This meeting was in San Francisco and it struck me that that city was no stranger to environmental catastrophe. In 1906 a massive earthquake and fires decimated San Francisco. I wondered what people in the city did then, whether they felt helpless and uncertain, and whether there was a parallel to our current situation with climate change.
I wanted to write this book because I wanted to know how people handle other sorts of environmental change. In some ways, climate change is unique, but, when it comes to coping with environmental change, this is not our first rodeo.
We have experience with change on earth and it can be helpful to understand our strengths, blind spots, and emotions when it comes to dealing with catastrophe. I wanted to learn from these other experiences to understand why we are slow to act on climate change.
Q: You describe climate change as "the catastrophe of our time." What do you see looking ahead, and what role do you see the Trump administration playing?
A: Looking ahead I see more strife in the short term - more weird weather, more failing crops, more challenges.
But I see better news in the long term, a paradigm shift in the way we create and use energy that stops adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere - new ways to live. It might feel a bit painful but, like pulling off a bandage, it has to happen and we’ll feel better once it does.
In the meantime, we will need to find better ways to deal with the disasters that are caused by the impacts of climate change. We’ll need to find ways to adapt.
The Trump administration has been making decisions that will make climate change worse. Thankfully, the rest of the world and many people in the United States are making smart decisions that are helping quell the catastrophe.
Individuals and organizations are divesting from fossil fuels, solar panels now cover roofs in many areas, and hundreds of cities in the U.S. have adopted the Paris Climate Accord and are planning ways to limit carbon emissions. I hope that momentum keeps increasing. It’s all about the decisions we make.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: I searched for examples of different types of environmental change - slow and fast, caused by humans and not, geologic, atmospheric and biologic. I found locations to make observations of phenomena or their aftermath and perused published research from various disciplines and history archives.
So many things surprised me as I researched the book. I was surprised how many of the historic stories of individuals I found were humorous and heartwarming. Even in scary times, people can be very amusing.
But I was most surprised to find myself in a catastrophe. Right about when I thought I was finished with my book research, flash floods plowed through my city. I took this as a sign that one more chapter was needed and it was time for more observations and research.
Q: What are some lessons you took away from the other disasters you studied?
A: Looking into other disasters helped me understand why we aren’t all reacting to climate change in the same way. That in no way excuses people for making bad decisions when it comes to climate change, but it is an explanation of why it’s so hard for us to get on the same page about what to do.
None of us are immune to making decisions that turn out to be unhelpful. For example, in the research for this book, I found one person who ran towards an erupting volcano and another who leisurely enjoyed a glass of wine as his city lay in ruins.
But all of us alive today have the ability to learn from decisions and improve. By being aware of how we are living on earth and the impact we have, we can do our best to minimize climate change by making decisions that add less greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, by choosing products and services that have a low carbon impact, and by voting for candidates who recognize the climate catastrophe and are ready to take action.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I have a book in the early stages that will weave together science, history, humanity, geography, and first-person narrative in a way that’s similar to Tales from an Uncertain World.
In addition to writing books, I create educational resources at the UCAR Center for Science Education to help people of all ages better understand how the earth works.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb