As a member of the generation who is coming of age in these early days of climate-related disasters, I was intrigued by Tim Duane’s provocatively titled convocation speech, “Four Score and Seven Years Ago: Reflecting on the Climate Crisis in 2075.”
To sell his key points, Duane used a rhetorical device of speaking from the future, a choice that proved effective and felt truly fresh. For those wondering about the specific year of 2075, it is 87 years after the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Despite frequently breaking character and asking for an extreme suspension of disbelief, as he recounted the climate disasters of the 2020s and the worsening conditions through mid-century, Duane clearly had the room’s attention. Drawing on his experience as a Californian, he spoke at length on the California wildfires of 2018 and ’19, and their particular effect on business and homeowners—insurers have abandoned the California foothills market, leading to “de-insurance” and “unsaleability” of property, which he predicted would lead to depopulation by the mid-2020s. He predicted that soon, flooding and fire will overcome the Southeast and Midwest as well, with heat waves in the Southwest having the highest death toll —this in recognition of the fact that other countries would experience greater devastation than the United States. Duane could not provide details on any disasters following 2019, but he did know roughly which parts of the country would be dealing with which threats. He also knew that averages don’t matter—it is the growing “tails of the distribution” that create never-before-seen weather events. In this way, Duane intuitively explained the concept of scientific uncertainty as it relates to the politicization of climate science. What he conveyed was that it didn’t matter that he did not have precise details, because he still knew what would happen by 2075 in terms of broad climatic patterns that have been locked in by emissions already emitted. Instead of using uncertainty as a stalling tactic, as has been done for decades, he emphasized how much we do know, and how dangerous the remaining uncertainty is.
Duane established his credibility on this topic by discussing his past in the renewable energy industry. Duane was a professor in the University of California system for 27 years, and currently works as a lawyer advocating for renewable energy projects. Both through his chosen career and activism, it is clear that he is mindful of acting in accordance with his beliefs. As a scientist, Duane is not afraid to use his platform to encourage political action as he did on Friday. In response to one audience question, he noted that he had supported divestment from fossil fuels at the University of California (full disclosure: I asked this question, and corresponded with Duane ahead of time). Throughout his talk, he offered his own experience, including his insider view of the growth of the renewable energy industry. He also shared lesser-known issues with climate science, such as the fact that climate models were calibrated to not predict weather events more extreme than those in recorded history to avoid accusations of implausibility. In the face of recent disasters, these historical constraints have been shattered. In his words, scientists “better update the model.”
The bulk of Duane’s talk focused on political solutions to climate change. He focused on the 2020 presidential election, framing this as the pivotal battleground that would determine the course of the next 56 years—and whether the US would address its responsibility to the world, as the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases. Duane was convinced that reelecting Donald Trump would set us on a path of no return, and that the most effective way to build a coalition around a climate mandate would be to elect a Democrat that appeals to centrist voters. He argues that this would be necessary to sway the growing cohort of voters whose economic opportunity will be eroded by climate-related disasters. Many audience members may have been confused by this rhetoric, considering that the climate issue has been avoided by “moderate” Democrats for the past several election cycles. To my mind, it seemed that his position could be too easily construed as a gesture of giving up on the kind of aggressive action he had claimed would be necessary.
During the subsequent lunch, Duane clarified that he is not concerned with “electability” or even immediate aggressive action on climate, but is basing his opinion on research that has generated two ideas about political change: policy change is always reactionary, in response to massive crises, and never in anticipation of a predictable crisis; and that policies are generally supported by a majority when they are passed.
According to Duane, the only way to build a climate majority is over many election cycles, slowly building climate action into a palatable centrist package. By this point, the ever more destructive climate disasters will provide the inciting crisis.
As a lawyer, scientist, and academic, Professor Duane has consistently used his talents and knowledge to directly address climate threats. His use of the future perspective to express the uncertainty and gravity of climate catastrophe was unique and powerful. I cannot help thinking, however, that the scientific content of the speech would have been more relevant ten years ago, and the political content is just one perspective out of many. Duane’s conviction that his own opinions are the right way to address factual crises should remind us all of the value of skepticism—once we have agreed that a problem exists, we can still develop our own opinions on how to fix it.