A Climate Scientist On 'Slaying The Climate Dragon'
KATE MARVEL: (Reading) Once upon a time, there was an enchanted kingdom full of magic and fairies and tame dragons that slumbered safely under the mountains. The people of this...
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Kate Marvel has written a fairy tale. She's not a novelist, not a picture book author.
MARVEL: I am an associate research scientist at Columbia University's Department of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics and at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City.
SIMON: And as a climate scientist, she spent a lot of time trying to explain how the planet is changing. So when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report - and it was dire - she was ready with her version of that warning and published it in Scientific American. Here's Kate Marvel with her allegory about humans and fossil fuels, what she calls our magic elixir.
MARVEL: (Reading) Magic elixir, the source of all the kingdom's power and wealth, now came with a deadly side effect. It had the power to awake dragons.
What I wanted to do was tell a story about climate change because it's really hard to relate to things that we can't tell stories about. And climate change is big. It's diffuse. It's slow-moving. And there are no heroes. And we're kind of all the villains.
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MARVEL: (Reading) And so it was. The reports were hazy at first - disappearing sheep, scorch marks on the ground, huge lizard footprints in the forest. But soon, it became clear. A dragon was loose in the kingdom. Years passed and the dragon became harder to ignore. Sometimes, its hot breath razed the countryside. And sometimes, its flapping wings whipped the angry seas and coastal winds into a frenzy, destroying fishing villages and the beach where the king had hoped to spend a summer. The wise men and women were summoned once again. How - they were asked - could the kingdom be kept safe? Nervously, they suggested that the optimal number of dragons was in fact no dragons. But since that was hardly a possibility now, the kingdom should do its best to at least not add another dragon. Two dragons, the heralds proclaimed. The kingdom must not exceed two dragons. The king accepted this and prepared once again to do nothing.
I think there's another danger that we decide we're doomed, let's despair, let's not even try. I find that almost as frightening as not doing anything because we don't believe it's happening.
(Reading) But here's another ending. It's not a happy one. No one slays the dragon, not even by half. It rises up more powerful than even the wisest woman had predicted. Villages burn; the land is alternately parched and flooded. Fairies go extinct in the wild. The kingdom does not retreat. Heroes challenge the dragon repeatedly. When they fall, others rise to take their place. They know their quest is a doomed one. They set out, nevertheless.
We've basically ruled out fine. We've ruled out that it's going to be OK. So how can we be honest about the fact that in a world that's a degree and a half warmer we've lost 90 percent of the coral whereas in a world that's 2 degrees warmer we've lost all the coral reefs? But at the same time, those different gradations of bad - and maybe we can prevent 3 degrees or 4 degrees or 5 degrees - it can always be worse, which means that there's always something that we can do.
(Reading) They did not all live happily ever after, but they lived. And most importantly, they had something to live for.
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SIMON: Kate Marvel of Columbia University and NASA. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.