How Science Can Predict Where You Stand on Keystone XL

Want to make sense of the feud between pipeline activists and “hippie-punching” moderates? Talk to the researchers.

The anti-Keystone “Forward on Climate” rally in Washington DC, February 17th, 2013. Jay Mallin/ZUMA Press

On February 17, more than 40,000 climate change activists—many of them quite young—rallied in Washington, DC, to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which will transport dirty tar sands oil from Canada across the heartland. The scornful response from media centrists was predictable. Joe Nocera of the New York Times, for one, quickly went on the attack. In a column titled “How Not to Fix Climate Change,” he wrote that the strategy of activists “who have made the Keystone pipeline their line in the sand is utterly boneheaded.”

Nocera, who accepts the science of climate change, made a string of familiar arguments: The tar sands will be exploited anyway, the total climate contribution of the oil that would be transported by Keystone XL is minimal, and so on. Perhaps inspired by Nocera-style thinking, a group of 17 Democratic senators would later cast a symbolic vote in favor of the pipeline, signaling that opposing industrial projects is not the brand of environmentalism that they, at least, have in mind.

The Keystone activists, not surprisingly, were livid. Not only did they challenge Nocera’s facts, they utterly rejected his claims as to the efficacy of their strategy: Opponents of the pipeline have often argued that it is vital to push the limits of the possible—in particular, to put unrelenting pressure on President Obama to lead on climate change. Van Jones, the onetime Obama clean-energy adviser and a close supporter of founder and Keystone protest leader Bill McKibben, has put it like this: “I think activism works…The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement kept pushing on the question of marriage equality, and the president came out for marriage equality, which then had a positive effect on public opinion and helped that movement win at the ballot box and in a number of states, within months.”

This article is about the emotionally charged dispute between climate activists and environmental moderates, despite their common acceptance of the science of climate change. Why does this sort of rift exist on so many issues dividing the center from the left? And what can we actually say about which side is, you know, right?

Does Joe Nocera really have a sound basis for calling the pipeline opponents’ strategy boneheaded—or is that just his gut feeling as a centrist? Does Van Jones have any basis for claiming that activism works—or is it just his gut feeling as someone favorably disposed towards activism?

It’s high time we considered the science on these questions. There is, after all, considerable scholarly work on whether activists, by pushing the boundaries of what seems acceptable, create the conditions for progress or, instead, bring about backlashes that can complicate the jobs of sympathetic policymakers.

There’s also data that may shed light on why these rifts between “moderates” and “activists” are more the rule than the exception—across the ideological spectrum. “I can’t really think of any movement where there isn’t some internal dissent about goals and tactics,” says Carleton College political scientist Devashree Gupta, who studies social movements. The recurrence of this pattern on issues from civil rights to gun control to abortion suggests that there is something here that’s well worth understanding, preferably before the next rhetorical bloodbath around Keystone.

A chief benefit of this line of inquiry: It should prove duly humbling to activists and moderates alike—and thus might help to unite them.

FROM THE OUTSET, I think we can agree on one fundamental point: Over the past several years, driven by the failure of cap and trade and a worsening climate crisis, America’s environmental movement has become considerably more activist in nature—some might even say “radical.” Exhibit A is the successful attempt by inspirer-in-chief McKibben (who has written extensively about climate for Mother Jones) to create a grassroots protest movement rather than simply to work within the corridors of power.

“What Bill is doing is actually quite impressive—he’s the first one to create a social movement around climate change, and he’s done it by creating a common enemy, the oil industry, and a salient target, which is Keystone,” says Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies environmental politics.

One crucial aspect of this shift is a growing reluctance by environmentalists to work hand in hand with big polluters. The latter was a central feature of the US Climate Action Partnership, the industry-environmental collaboration that led an unsuccessful cap-and-trade push a few years back. Nowadays, the environmental movement is moving toward a more oppositional relationship with industry, as evidenced by its attempts to block a major industrial project (Keystone) and to get universities and cities to drop their investments in fossil fuel companies (another of McKibben’s goals).

The rival environmental factions are sometimes described as “dark greens” (the purists who want to force radical change) and “bright greens” (those who seek compromise and accept tradeoffs). There’s really little doubt that dark greens are on the ascendant. “He’s pulling the flank out,” Hoffman says of McKibben. “I do think he has a valuable role in creating a space where others can create a more moderate role.”

It’s also fair to say that McKibben—the charismatic journalist-turned-organizer—lies a good way to the political left. Its centrist biases notwithstanding, a recent paper by American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet does capture McKibben’s “romantic” ideology: Like most people, he’s unhappy about environmental degradation, but he also seems opposed, in a significant sense, to the economic growth engine that drives it. He believes in living smaller, in going back to nature, in consuming less—not a position many politicians would be willing to espouse. (Indeed, President Obama’s comments about climate change often contain an explicit rejection of the idea that environmental and economic progress are mutually exclusive.)

So environmentalists are moving left and becoming more activist in response to political gridlock and scary planetary rumblings. Then along come the moderates, unleashing flurries of what Grist‘s David Roberts calls “hippie punching” under the guise of being more rational and reasoned than those they are criticizing. For example, Nisbet writes: “McKibben’s line-in-the-sand opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, his skepticism of technology, and his romantic vision of a future consisting of small-scale, agrarian communities reflects his own values and priorities, rather than a pragmatic set of choices designed to effectively and realistically address the problem of climate change.”

You can see how an activist might find this just a tad irritating. For what is Nisbet’s statement if not a reflection of his own values and priorities? Words like “pragmatic” and “realistic” give away the game.

THE TRUTH IS, ​there is every reason to suspect that both groups are driven by divergent emotions, passions, and personality dispositions—or at least, so says the body of research (admittedly, still in an early phase) that exists on the matter.

We live in an era in which politics seems less and less comprehensible without turning to psychology. In particular, there is a growing realization that today’s Democrats and Republicans simply don’t understand one another, and are trapped in a kind of unending political Mars and Venus saga due to their divergent personalities, psychologies, and emotionally rooted moral systems.

Yet anyone who has hung around the environmental movement long enough may have noticed an eerily similar version of this phenomenon in the divide between moderates and activists. And there are at least some researchers out there helping us to make sense of this divide.

First, let’s consider the personalities of so-called moderates: Research by Yale political scientist Alan Gerber and his colleagues suggests that people who score high on the personality trait “openness to experience” are not only more likely to lean liberal (a long-standing finding in political psychology) but, more surprisingly, are more likely to insist on remaining politically unaffiliated—in which case they tend to identify themselves as centrist, moderate, or independent.

It appears that openness to experience, beyond its literal meaning, signals a desire to stand out from the crowd. These people are not joiners, or team players. So it would not be out of character for them to criticize people on their side of the aisle in order to distinguish themselves from their presumed allies. In this camp, we might expect to see plenty of instinctive contrarians, like the pundits and journalists who enjoy declaring a pox on both houses.

So, are moderates like Nocera really more rational or reasonable than activists? Gerber’s results suggest that there may simply be a “moderate” personality for whom this contrarian hippie-punching instinct simply feels right.

Beyond the personality studies, there is a growing body of research on the deep-seated emotions that underlie our personal politics. Dubbed “moral foundations theory,” it consists largely of work done by New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California, and their colleagues and collaborators. Their approach is to measure the five (sometimes six) moral “foundations” that seem to drive our responses. (They are: “care/harm,” “fairness/cheating,” “loyalty/betrayal,” “authority/subversion,” and “sanctity/degradation.”) In short, they have been able to demonstrate that people’s views on right and wrong, and the intensity with which we respond to moral and political situations, have more to do with our gut instincts than rational consideration of the facts before us; our moral “reasoning” is actually a form of post hoc rationalization.

What can moral-foundations theory tell us about the chasm between environmental moderates and activists? Ravi Iyer of USC, a collaborator of Haidt and Graham, agreed to run some data for me, based on a sample of 15,552 individuals who responded to the researchers’ moral-foundations questionnaire, as well as a separate questionnaire that included a question about environmental attitudes.

Click here to read Ravi Iyer’s explanation of the data.

The result was revealing: People who had professed that it is important to “protect the environment” not only tended to be liberal (no surprise), but they also exhibited a considerably higher sensitivity to moral considerations about “care/harm.” In other words, when they weighed the right and wrong of a given situation, these respondents were more concerned than their fellow citizens about “whether or not someone suffered emotionally” and “whether or not someone cared for someone weak or vulnerable.”

Iyer suggests that environmentalists’ care/harm considerations extend far beyond the immediate and the local—they also apply to distant peoples, animals, habitats, and future generations. (This finding is consistent with a recent study on the “moral roots” of environmentalism by Matthew Feinberg of Stanford and Robb Willer of the University of California-Berkeley.)

Iyer then ran a second analysis. He compared the moral responses of liberals who scored highest in their desire to protect the environment with those of liberals who scored lower, yet still said they cared about the environment. This analysis, a proxy for the differences between the environmental purists and moderates, turned up relatively small but still noteworthy differences. The purists, or activists, tended to be more sensitive to three of the five moral foundations: “care/harm,” “fairness/cheating,” and “sanctity/degradation.” This suggests that if you want to engage an environmentalist activist on an emotional level, you should try a moralizing narrative: A corporation with too much power (unfair) is causing devastating damage (care/harm), defiling (sanctity/degradation) the environment and jeopardizing the planet for future generations (care/harm). Sound familiar?
Environmental activists, who associate nature with purity, may be viscerally offended by perceived abuses of its sanctity.

Perhaps most revealing, though, was the center-vs.-left difference in the realm of “sanctity/degradation,” a moral sensibility associated with disgust that is usually much stronger on the political right than on the left. It is measured by asking people how much they factor in “whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency” and “whether or not someone did something disgusting” when deciding what is moral or immoral. Iyer’s analysis suggests that environmental activists, more so than the moderates, associate the environment with purity and feel revulsion when it is defiled. This may leave them viscerally offended by perceived abuses of the sanctity of nature—and less willing to compromise on their ideals.

The moderates, who are less driven by pure “care/harm” concerns, may tend to be less emotional about preserving the environment in a pristine state, and are thus more willing to endorse trade-offs. “The more moderate you are, the less extreme you are in any of the moral foundational domains,” says Stanford’s Matthew Feinberg. “So you probably are more utilitarian or consequentialist in the way you perceive the world.”

Does this mean that moderates are more rational? Insofar as they are less moralistic, they have something of a claim. But it is offset by their tendency towards knee-jerk centrism, which can be just another reflex.

The bottom line is that the activists and moderates respond and feel differently when faced with the same moral and political situation. And both factions are likely biased by their initial, emotional responses. Thus, a moderate can be just as reactionary as an activist—especially if he or she never moves beyond that first instinct and simply splits the difference between the opposing sides in every situation.

The moderate (MLK Jr.) and the radical (Malcolm X): Who was more effective? Wikipedia Commons

LET US NOW return to the Keystone debate. If you’ll recall, the moderates’ instincts tell them that activists create backlash that interferes with the movement’s wider goals, whereas the activists believe their protests create space for, at minimum, the achievement of more moderate goals. So which side is correct?

To answer that question, we have to turn to a different body of research: the study of “radical flank effects” in social movements. Perhaps the most seminal work on the matter was Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream, 1954-1970, a book published in 1988 by Herbert Haines, a scholar at the State University of New York-Cortland. Haines argued, provocatively, that radical groups like the Black Panthers and individuals like Malcolm X actually helped make space for a series of moderate successes (led by Martin Luther King Jr.) that culminated in the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Haines called this a “positive radical flank effect” because it led to a beneficial outcome for civil rights. But he also raised the possibility of “negative radical flank effects”—indeed, a delayed civil rights backlash had kicked in by the early 1970s. But overall, he argued, the presence of the radicals and their growing prominence helped create favorable conditions for the moderates to push important legislation.

The radical flank concept now “has a lot of credibility among social-movement scholars,” says Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who studies climate change (and the people who claim it isn’t real). The concept has since been applied to political movements and moments ranging from women’s rights to the New Deal.

Some of Haines’ observations sound entirely relevant to today’s environmental moment. For instance: “Radicals specialize in generating crises which elites must deal with”—Keystone anyone?—”while moderates specialize in offering relatively unthreatening avenues of escape.” In other words, it’s a symbiotic relationship: The moderates are more attractive for the power brokers to negotiate with, Haines writes, “but all the more so when more militant activists are applying pressure.”

The sad irony here is that the activists don’t get what they want. In the end, they merely get to help out the moderates. But that’s the nature of the positive radical flank effect.

For this article, I asked several sociologists and specialists on movements—Haines included—how one might apply the radical flank theory to the current environmental movement. Short answer: It’s tough without the benefit of hindsight. “It’s easy to do when you look over the course of history, but when it’s right in the moment, it’s really complex,” explains Jules Boykoff, a specialist on social movements at Pacific University in Oregon.

The definition of “radical” hinges entirely on what society considers mainstream—and that’s a moving target.

First, it is important to acknowledge, as Haines did, that the definition of “radical” hinges entirely on what society considers mainstream—and that’s a moving target. The tactics of radicals vary greatly, too—in this context, the peaceful anti-Keystone movement hardly counts as extreme.

But certain scholarly considerations may prove illuminating. For instance, one of the critical factors in determining whether a radical flank effect will be positive or negative is the way moderates and activists relate to one another. “How clearly are the moderates and radicals differentiating themselves?” asks Carleton College’s Devashree Gupta. This, as Gupta notes, shapes media coverage and the thinking of politicians and policymakers who may be calculating whether helping the moderates will ease the headaches the radicals create for them.

It is noteworthy that as the Keystone XL pipeline protests have heated up, environmental organizations have not differentiated themselves clearly. Indeed, the leaders of typically moderate groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote a letter to President Obama in 2011 noting that “there is not an inch of daylight between our policy position on the Keystone Pipeline and those of the very civil protesters being arrested daily outside the White House.”

A second major consideration involves policy momentum. Here, the question is whether all sides agree that change is coming anyway. If so, a positive radical flank effect is more likely, as the status quo comes to envelop and embrace moderates (and spurn radicals). “For a positive effect to happen,” Haines explains, “what you kind of have to have is things moving in the right direction politically. So around environmentalism, it would have to be that policy is already moving in a pro-environmentalist direction, like civil rights was, and the radicals come along and give it a boost.”

Are things moving that way? That’s incredibly difficult to discern at the moment. Climate progress is clearly in congressional limbo. But culturally, you could say that there is indeed momentum as the public awakens to the reality of increasingly extreme weather, and even the Wall Street Journal is publishing op-eds supporting a carbon tax. There is also positive momentum in the sense that Obama clearly wants to do something for his environmental legacy, and there is still much he can do without cooperation from Congress.

Finally, any radical-flank analysis must consider the possibility of backlash. In a sense, that backlash has already happened, as the political right has taken up Keystone XL as a case study in environmentalists wanting to kill jobs. Haines cautions: “If you’ve got a radical flank and a very polarized environment, where there’s no real concept or impulse to compromise on the other side, then not only is more-militant stuff less likely to encourage progress, but it can become a weapon that the other side uses.”

In other words, the jury is still out on whether the Keystone protests will encourage positive action on climate—so it’s awfully premature to be calling the strategy “boneheaded.” Mobilizing thousands of people, drawing massive media attention, perhaps redefining environmentalism—these are all actions that, even if they do produce some backlash, will assuredly have myriad other effects that are difficult to foresee.

But the protesters might also take a gut check from this analysis: Their success is far from certain. And most galling, from the vantage point of history, their “success” may well be defined by their failure on the specific issue they care most about. It is not hard to imagine, for instance, an outcome that would be the very definition of a positive radical flank effect: Obama approves Keystone and simultaneously announces a number of initiatives long desired by centrist environmental organizations. Chief among them: new steps by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

The activists would be bitterly disappointed, of course, but progress would be real and tangible. In this context, would Van Jones be wrong in saying that “activism works”?

TO SUM THINGS UP, we’ve seen that there is likely a deep seated, emotional and dispositional reason why some people wind up as activists and others as moderates. Perhaps the rift between the Noceras and the McKibbens of the world will make more sense—and even, perhaps, be diminished—if we can all accept the fact that enviros on both sides of the Keystone protests are feeling their way to their opinions.

Second, the study of social movements suggests that both outcomes—progress and backlash—can occur simultaneously, and the activists might well win by losing (or, if you prefer, lose by winning). Given all of the complexities, calling the mobilization of thousands of people around climate action “boneheaded” is, well, just that.

In the final analysis, it’s hard not to admire what McKibben and his supporters have pulled off. We don’t yet know which way the radical flank effect will go, but until fairly recently, there wasn’t even a flank to discuss. “The reality is that we’ve had no radicals so far, until Bill McKibben,” says Oklahoma State’s Riley Dunlap. McKibben has thrown the switch, and now the gears are turning, to uncertain end.

As we wait for the outcome, there’s a lesson here for the moderates: Un-jerk those knees. For moderates’ actions matter, too, and their choices may have historic consequences. “Whether it’s a positive or negative flank effect, we decide that,” says Jules Boykoff. “If you diss somebody, dismiss them, use them for your short term gain, you might sacrifice that group on the altar of missing what you actually want to happen.”

If the “bright greens” want to be known for nuanced views, sophistication, and willingness to endorse complexity and tradeoffs, then let them begin with this simple acknowledgement: Determining the historical impact of a movement like this one is anything but simple.

Keystone XL: The Science, Stakes, and Strategy Behind the Fight Over the Tar Sands Pipeline

Join us for a Climate Desk Live event focused on Keystone XL.

Watch Thursday’s event here:

Watch live streaming video from climatenexus at


On February 17, more than 40,000 people rallied in Washington to convince the president to reject the Keystone XL, a proposed 875-mile pipeline running from the Canadian border into Nebraska and slated to transport oil from tar sands (which is 17 percent more greenhouse gas intensive than standard crude oil). The crowds outside the White House provided overwhelming proof that opposing Keystone has mobilized a new and powerful grassroots constituency.

But in the US Senate, the mood was different. In a nonbinding vote, 62 Senators—including 17 pro-Keystone Democrats—voted to approve the pipeline. Just 37 Senators voted against it. In fact, the amendment was co-sponsored by four Democrats, including Max Baucus of Montana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

So are activists’ efforts all in vain? What will happen to the environmental movement if President Obama ultimately lets Keystone go forward?

And more broadly: What does this say about the best strategy for fighting climate change? Does compromise, horse-trading, and winning industry allies ultimately work best—or do you have to push the limits of the possible? You’re invited to the next Climate Desk Live event—hosted by myself—for a debate and discussion between some of the leading voices on this issue:

May Boeve, executive director and co-founder,

David Roberts, Grist magazine, who has been covering Keystone regularly and recently wrote about the “Virtues of Being Unreasonable on Keystone.”

Michael Levi, director of the program on Energy Security and Climate Change at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of the new book The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle For America’s Future (Oxford, May 2013), where he writes that combating climate change will require “doing deals [with those] who want to expand production of oil and gas.”

Michael Grunwald, senior national correspondent for Time magazine, author of The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, who recently declared that on Keystone, “I’m with the Tree Huggers!

Join us for a Climate Desk Live event focused on the Keystone XL: Thursday, April 18, 2013, 6:30 p.m. at the University of California Washington Center, 1608 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036. To attend, please RSVP to

How the US Navy is Leading the Charge on Clean Energy and Climate Change

Damn the do-nothing Congress. The Navy is going full steam ahead on green energy.

Event live stream to start 02/27/13 around 9:30 a.m. EST:

Increasingly, the US Navy is leading the charge towards clean energy, which can in turn impact national security and even climate change. Through investments in biofuels, construction of a more energy-efficient fleet, forward thinking about issues like rising sea levels and a melting Arctic, and commitments to reduce consumption and reliance on foreign oil, the Navy is leading the charge of a vast energy reform effort to “change the way the US military sails, flies, marches, and thinks.”

Please join host Chris Mooney for the next installment of Climate Desk Live on Wednesday February 27 at 9:30a.m, where he’ll discuss the Navy’s charge towards energy independence with Dr. David W. Titley, retired naval officer who led the US Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change; Capt. James C. Goudreau, Director, Navy Energy Coordination Office; Dr. D. James Baker, Director of the Global Carbon Measurement Program of the William J. Clinton Foundation and Former Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under the Clinton Administration; and Julia Whitty, environmental correspondent for Mother Jones whose cover story on this topic appears in latest issue of the magazine.

Event Details:
Date: February 27, 2013, 9:30 a.m.
Location: University of California Washington Center, 1608 Rhode Island Avenue, NW, Washington, DC
Please RSVP to
About Dr. David W. Titley:

Dr. David W. Titley is a nationally known expert in the field of climate, the Arctic, and National Security. He served as a naval officer for 32 years and rose to the rank of Rear Admiral. Dr. Titley’s career included duties as Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy and Deputy Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance. While serving in the Pentagon, Dr. Titley initiated and led the US Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change. After retiring from the Navy, Dr. Titley served as the Deputy Undersecretary of Commerce for Operations, the Chief Operating Officer position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Dr. Titley has spoken across the country and throughout the world on the importance of climate change as it relates to National Security. He was invited to present on behalf of the Department of Defense at both Congressional Hearings and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meetings from 2009 to 2011.

About Captain James C. Goudreau:

Captain James C. Goudreau serves as the Director of the Navy Energy Coordination Office. His sea duty and overseas assignments include: Assistant Supply Officer onboard USS REASONER (FF 1063) and USS NIMITZ (CVN 68), Supply Officer, USS THE SULLIVANS (DDG 68) and Supply Officer, Joint Maritime Facility, St. Mawgan in Cornwall, United Kingdom. His most recent assignment was as the Assistant Chief of Staff for Logistics at Expeditionary Strike Group Seven and Amphibious Force Seventh Fleet Based in Okinawa, Japan. Captain Goudreau’s ashore tours include: Naval Air Station Key West, FL; Naval Inventory Control Point, Philadelphia, PA as the P-3 Weapons Team Lead and Director of Aviation Industrial Support; Fleet and Industrial Supply Center San Diego as Site Director, Fleet Readiness Center Southwest; and Commander, Defense Logistics Agency North Island. Captain Goudreau is a member of the Defense Acquisition Corps (formerly the Acquisition Professional Community) and is qualified as a Naval Aviation Supply Officer and as a Surface Warfare Supply Corps Officer. He has been awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (three awards), Navy Commendation Medal (five awards), Navy Achievement Medal (two awards), and various campaign and unit awards.

About Dr. D. James Baker:

Dr. D. James Baker is currently the Director of the Global Carbon Measurement Program of the William J. Clinton Foundation, working with forestry programs in developing countries to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and alleviate poverty. He is also a science and management consultant with the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO in Paris and the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington, D.C. He is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics, and is an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania and at the University of Delaware.  He was a scientific advisor to former Vice President Al Gore on the Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth and lectures regularly on sustainability, climate  change, and oceanography. During the 1990s in the Clinton Administration, Baker was Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere.  Most recently, Baker was President and CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Before coming to NOAA, he was President of Joint Oceanographic Institutions Incorporated in Washington, D.C., the first Dean of the College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington; and taught and carried out research at Harvard University and the University of Rhode Island. He has led oceanographic expeditions to many parts of the world and shares a patent for a deep-sea pressure gauge. He has more than 100 scientific  publications and is the author of the book Planet Earth: The View from Space, published by Harvard University Press. Baker co-founded and was the first President of The Oceanography Society; is a member of the American Philosophical Society; and has served  as the B. Benjamin Zucker Environmental Fellow at Yale College. He was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by Oceanology International in 2008 for his “contribution to oceanography and marine science” and the Vikram Sarabhai Medal by the Government of India in 1998 for his “outstanding contributions to space research in developing countries” and holds two honorary degrees.

USNS Henry J. Kaiser delivers a 50-50 blend of advanced biofuels. Official U.S. Navy Imagery/Flickr

USNS Henry J. Kaiser delivers a 50-50 blend of advanced biofuels. Official U.S. Navy Imagery/Flickr

Humans Have Already Set in Motion 69 Feet of Sea Level Rise

Glaciologist Jason Box describes a post-warming world that you won’t even be able to recognize.

Last week, a much discussed new paper in the journal Nature seemed to suggest to some that we needn’t worry too much about the melting of Greenland, the mile-thick mass of ice at the top of the globe. The research found that the Greenland ice sheet seems to have survived a previous warm period in Earth’s history—the Eemian period, some 126,000 years ago—without vanishing (although it did melt considerably).

But Ohio State glaciologist Jason Box isn’t buying it.

At Monday’s Climate Desk Live briefing in Washington, D.C., Box, who has visited Greenland 23 times to track its changing climate, explained that we’ve already pushed atmospheric carbon dioxide 40 percent beyond Eemian levels. What’s more, levels of atmospheric methane are a dramatic 240 percent higher—both with no signs of stopping. “There is no analogue for that in the ice record,” said Box.

And that’s not all. The present mass scale human burning of trees and vegetation for clearing land and building fires, plus our pumping of aerosols into the atmosphere from human pollution, weren’t happening during the Eemian. These human activities are darkening Greenland’s icy surface, and weakening its ability to bounce incoming sunlight back away from the planet. Instead, more light is absorbed, leading to more melting, in a classic feedback process that is hard to slow down.

“These giants are awake,” said Box of Greenland’s rumbling glaciers, “and they seem to have a bit of a hangover.”

Chart of declining areas of glaciers

To make matters worse, there’s also Antarctica, the other great planetary ice sheet, which 10 times as much total water as Greenland—all of which could someday be translated into rising sea level. That includes the West Antarctic ice sheet, which is marine- rather than land-based, making it highly vulnerable to melting.

While Greenland is currently contributing twice as much water to sea level rise as Antarctica,  situation could change in the future. According to Box, it’s kind of as though we’re in a situation of “ice sheet roulette” right now, wondering which one of the big ones will go first.

Box also provided a large-scale perspective on how much sea level rise humanity has already probably set in motion from the burning of fossil fuels. The answer is staggering: 69 feet, including water from both Greenland and Antarctica, as well as other glaciers based on land from around the world.

Chart of rising Greenland temperatures

Scientists like Box aren’t sure precisely when, or how fast, all that water will flow into the seas. They only know that in past periods of Earth’s history, levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases and sea levels have followed one another closely, allowing an inference about where sea level is headed as it, in effect, catches up with the greenhouse gases we’ve unleashed. To be sure, the process will play out over vast time periods—but it has already begun, and sea level is starting to show a curve upward that looks a lot like…well, the semi-notorious “hockey stick.

So what can we do? For Box, any bit of policy helps. “The more we can cool climate, the slower Greenland’s loss will be,” he explained. Cutting greenhouse gases slows the planet’s heating, and with it, the pace of ice sheet losses.

In the meantime, to better understand where we’re headed, Box has launched a scientific project called “Dark Snow,” which seeks to crowdfund a Greenland expedition to help determine just how much our darkening of the great ice sheet in this unprecedented “Anthropocene” era will push us well beyond Eemian territory. The video for that project is below. If the remote, dangerous science of ice sheets intrigues you enough (or scares you enough), then you definitely will want this research to succeed:


Climate Desk Live 1/28/13: Can Greenland Be Saved?

The writing is on the wall—Greenland is melting, and faster than expected, due to climate change. If it fully melts, it will raise global sea levels by seven meters, leading to even more dramatic losses of coastal land around the world, including in many major cities.

The question is not whether this is happening, but whether we’re too late to stop it. What is accelerating the melting and what research must we undertake to better understand the situation? Will cutting emissions even help save Greenland?

Join us on Monday, January 28 at 9:30 a.m. for Climate Desk Live as we explore these questions with Jason Box, the Ohio State University glaciologist recently featured in the acclaimed documentary Chasing Ice.

Box has traveled to Greenland 23 times, spending over a year on the ice there. He authored or coauthored 50 scientific papers related to Greenland, led the composition of the Arctic Report Card for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and was closely involved in the Extreme Ice Survey, using time-lapse cameras to measure Greenland’s changes.

Date: Monday, January 28, 2013, 9:30 a.m.

Location: The University of California, Washington Center
1608 Rhode Island Avenue, NW
Washington, DC

Please RSVP to

About Climate Desk

The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired.