I sit down with Professor Eric Jensen from Swarthmore’s Physics & Astronomy Department. Jensen currently teaches the course “The Earth’s Climate and Global Warming,” which explores climate change from the perspective of climate science.
This article is part of a series exploring climate change as an environmental, social, and psychological issue. The introduction to the series can be found here.
Even when you sit down with a professor to talk about climate change, the conversation is never strictly about science. At first glance, Jensen’s office is fairly academic: quintessential book-lined walls, conference tags slung from shelf corners. But if you passed his office and threw your hand to the right, you’d brush up against papers stapled to a bulletin board. If you turned to let your gaze meet your touch, you’d see poem printouts neatly stapled to the wall: Linda Pastan, Wallace Stevens… Details like this can serve as a code, revealing that Jensen is someone who views the world roundly.
Poetry — a terrific entanglement of lexemes and perspective — is the perfect backdrop for a discussion about the psychological puzzle of climate change. In fact, word choice is one of the first topics that arises. Jensen doesn’t recall his first encounter with climate change, but he recalls a shift: the movement from “global warming” to “climate change” in public discourse.
“The shift from talking about global warming to talking about climate change has been partly through a recognition that the climate changes in a lot of different ways,” he explained. “The average temperature is going up, but there are a lot of other things that are happening too. So it’s not just about warmer temperatures. And even with warmer temperatures, it’s not about always having warmer temperatures everywhere.” What Jensen is referring to is the idea of uneven distribution. While the average temperature of the Earth goes up, the warming may be stronger in some areas and not others. It’s the same difference between chocolate ice cream and fudge ripple: both can have the same average amount of chocolate, but the chocolatey-ness of fudge-ripple varies from bite to bite. Our planet’s future is the fudge-ripple sort.
But it’s more than just temperature: species shifting their ranges, storms becoming more intense and/or more frequent—the impacts range widely. As Jensen explains, the term “global warming” “makes it a little easier for people to point to cooler weather or a big snowstorm or something and say, ‘Oh, the climate’s not warming,’” while “climate change” expresses the variety of impacts we both see and expect.
Google Books Ngram showing the use of “climate change” versus “global warming,” 1980-2008
But the shift in diction wasn’t the only shift for Jensen. Another shift came from reconsidering his role at the college and asking, “At Swarthmore College, whose job is it to teach about climate change?” Swarthmore doesn’t have a designated climate science department, but physics stepped up. A course based around climate change appeared, first taught by Peter Collings and now by Eric Jensen. As a physics course, the class grants a space for the particulars of science to intermingle with policy and society.
While the course has a lot to talk about, its level hovers above everyday discourse, which raises a more interesting question: what aren’t we talking about, when we talk about climate change? In Jensen’s opinion, what we tend to sweep under the rug is “a sense of urgency.”
“It would be useful to add to the discussion is a better sense of how bad things could be if we don’t do anything,” he elaborated, treading carefully with his words. “I think it’s easy to think, ‘Well, you know, the weather’s going to be a little bit warmer, and so, we’ll have to deal with that. The seasons are going to be a little bit different, maybe there’ll be a few more storms: we can deal with it.’”
Does our belief that we can “deal with it” stem from an actual grasp of what a warmer climate looks like? According to Jensen, not knowing the specifics of climate change could be a significant knowledge gap, something “that’s a little fuzzier in people’s minds.”
Our future could be a number of trajectories, depending on how much we emit in coming years. “You know, there is some uncertainty with it,” he added, “but a lot of that uncertainty is associated with what we decide to do rather than with what the science says about what the effects are likely to be.”
What’s even more intimidating is that we’re not talking about temperatures in 2050 — that’s already been set — but the question is the future. Will we recklessly emit, or will we curb our output and mitigate so future warming is more modest? Will our global temperature rise 3 degrees Celsius or 2? And are we proactively choosing this future?
But one way we do talk about climate change is the way Professor Jensen talks about climate change: perhaps how we all should be talking about climate change. “The kind of language, the more emotionally-resonant language that you tend to hear related to this is people’s children, their grandchildren, what’s the world going to look like,” he explained. “So that’s possibly a way to talk about it that is real, I think, but gets around the idea that your actions aren’t going to change how things are going to look tomorrow.”
For those of us turning our faces towards tomorrow, acting on climate change means gazing into the hazier distance with intention. Jensen advised that we focus on what we can do: “We know how to build solar panels. We know how to build wind turbines. We know how to make cars more efficient. We know how to do a lot of things that would help. So we need to do more of the those things, and we need for there to be more structural incentives for those things to happen.”
Near the end of the interview, Jensen’s voice dropped low. My first impulse is to glance at my recorder, worried that it won’t pick up the words. My second impulse is to smack myself in the forehead: he’s talking quietly because what he’s saying is resonant. It’s time to turn off the language in my head and listen.
In climate change, a lot of things change, and it’s difficult to keep money out of the mix. It intermingles with our facts, our policy, and sometimes even our values. Students shell out thousands to be at Swarthmore and take courses like Jensen’s, and he’s paid to teach us. But the great secret: humanity is free. This humanity is what Jensen gives to his students, beyond knowledge. He gives this as a way to talk about climate change.
“I think big problems can be overwhelming by their scope,” he told me at the end. I was the only person in the office, but behind me stood a generation starting to shift the burden onto our shoulders. Sometimes our knees and shoulders shake with the weight of it. Sometimes it seems he knows even better than we how hard it will be. Sometimes it seems like through the science, he’s trying to tell us this, to help us. “But you can only do one thing next, right? You can pick what the next thing is you’re going to do. And that can be a way to maybe make it less overwhelming to try to figure out: ‘Okay, here’s a step to take.’”