Guest Post: Confession of a Climate Coward


I recently learned that my colleagues think I am a coward. And even more recently, I learned that I might agree with them.

It all began in 2007. That was a magic year for science writers. That was the year the IPCC released its crushing assessment on climate change, just after the surprise hit of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. It was amazing – the world was talking about carbon dioxide and everyone was listening to scientists. Rationality and logic were leading the debate for once and were – dare I say it – cool. It was like all the jocks and the cheerleaders suddenly turned to the kid with long greasy hair, Firefly t-shirt, and They Might Be Giants on his iPod (you know who you are) and said, “please tell us what you think!”

It was overwhelming and we loved it.  Editors were clawing over each other to send us to glaciers – any glacier would do.  I wrote stories on regional effects of warming in California crops, profiled algae growers and maybe even gushed about Solyndra, I really don’t remember. I deconstructed James Inhoff’s list of 400 scientists who deny climate change (a sad document that puts quirky iconoclasts like Freeman Dyson aside nutcases who sell magic chili powder to cancer patients) and even coauthored a series of bizarre climate cartoons with artist Damon Guthrie that I am still convinced are genius.

I remember laughing at Sharon Begley’s prediction in Newsweek that climate deniers would someday bring the party to an end. Maybe it was a mistake to pin a scientific reality to a political figure (or to let him pin it to himself). Maybe we shouldn’t have constantly report on worst-case scenarios. I really don’t know, but in late 2008 there were the signs of an ice fatigue breakout (a crushing disease among editors in which they become sick of pictures of glaciers). Then with “Climategate” everything came apart. Yes, they were silly accusations slung like so much bonobo poo, but people were ready for something different.

It’s hard to blame the denier crowd, they were just playing hardball. No, the simple fact is jocks and cheerleaders can only listen to World of Warcraft kid who picks his nose with a pencil eraser for so long, no matter what he says. Pretty soon they want to throw things at him.

And now my confession: I backed out. I’m a freelancer and so I just stopped pitching climate stories and followed the crowd. In my own defense, climate science is really hard. I mean, “CO2 drives climate and it’s on the rise” is something a tree shrew could grasp. But scientists are way past that now – now they want to talk about secondary VOC aerosols and how to identify methane sinks. One story I did for Nature on the chemicals forests put into the air hurt my brain so bad I lost all memory of the third grade. I was puzzling over the vapor pressure of “pine sap smell” and, pop, out it went.

Also, I am kind of sensitive to random guys hurling insults about my personal life. Yet when you blog on climate change, all you get is trolls and people who only type in all caps (for the record, I’m straight and have never had sex with livestock, no matter what you might have read).

So I gave up. I fled.  Moved on to earthquakes, fish, and ancient Maya. I’m happy now that people don’t yell at me and I don’t have to work trichlorophospoglypropalate (don’t look it up – pretty sure it’s not a real chemical) into a story. On my last reporting trip, I snorkeled with a whale shark for chrissake (props to Hoyt Peckham and Grupo Tortugero, by the way). The best I got from climate stories was a lab full of air bottles collected at 30,000 feet. Try writing about hundreds of empty glass bottles.

Truth is, I never really stopped writing climate change stories – I just stopped publishing them. For instance, two fascinating pieces “Why Climate Change is Exactly Like a Casino” and “How Climate Change Secretly Envies Paleontology” never made it out of my morning shower.

Many of us fled the glacier bubble, but not all. The hardy among us hung in with the chemistry lessons and slobbering trolls. All I can say is, hats off to you. And they seem to be getting their due – after Hurricane Sandy, climate change is back in the media. Maybe it’s time the rest of us wussies got back in the game.


Erik Vance is a science writer based in Mexico City.  Keep up with his adventures at

And here’s a pretty picture from his now-disappeared story on California climate.  The link takes you to another link, on which you should click.

And those climate change cartoons?  Charming and substantive, so here’s a second chance to click on them.

Photos:  headlines – BCalkins, Shutterstock; glacier – SehLax


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2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Confession of a Climate Coward

  1. Hooray for Erik! I hope you get back in the game just occasionally. I don’t blame you for getting tired of the trolls, but I want to know why climate change is like a casino.

    Sharon Begley has a good track record.

  2. Get back in the game you WUSS! I kid, I kid, doing my best imitation of my dear friends the climate trolls. But you’re right you have to have a very thick skin to write about climate change. The good news is: some day all science will be treated as a political position, not just climate and evolution…

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