The Zombie Apocalypse, Climate, and COP 21

A woman sits next to an animal display aspeople attend the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference at Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris, on December 10, 2015. / AFP / MIGUEL MEDINA (Photo credit should read
Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

I never imagined that the zombie apocalypse would come to mind in daily life. But when I was in Paris on Monday it did. A crowd of the braindead were making incomprehensible noises doggedly trying to come through the closed doors where we were, and some, who had not fully turned, were already in the room with us.

They weren’t actual zombies, of course. It was leftist street theater outside, with the journalists (not fully turned) inside. The two groups have a strange symbiotic relationship that resonates beyond the comprehension of sensible people. The zombies were there to pester the joint Heartland Institute, CEI, CFACT,  parallel events to COP 21, but  they were clearly fueled by press cameras at the opening press conference.

Wanted posters were put up on the streets of Paris identifying various personalities present as criminals. I was not one of them, but that is probably because they do not understand my research work on climate, which mostly appears in journals that do not have “climate” in the title. But unlike the street actors, the journalists were invited. It was a press conference after all.

The organizers offered to have the scientists in the audience, including me, answer any scientific questions the press might have. But there were no takers for that science stuff at the press conference. It was all about the money from oil companies etc. that these various institutes were charged with taking.

It continued to be about this, even after all of the representatives denied being supported by money from oil companies! One journalist seemed to interpret repeated emphatic rejection of the notion that they were not in the pocket of big fossil as a confession that they were. The institutes’ representatives clearly spelled out their non-fossil motives, but many journalists seem to have fossilized views.

Some journalists were interviewing anyone at the event. So naturally, I was asked to do an interview on video.

“First, tell me who you represent?” I asked the person asking to interview me.

He told me that he worked for some journalistic thing or other specializing in climate. The precise name does not interest me, but the implicit specialty did, so I decided to use my climate journalist test.

“Sometimes I give journalists, requesting an interview, a pop quiz.” He seemed to sweat and  move like a crab walking sideways on a beach in response.

“Tell me what you know about the Navier Stokes equations,” I said.

He had never heard of them, as I suspected. That’s the only wrong answer.

I said, “How can I chat about climate with a person who has never even heard of the basic equations governing the movements of air and water? Sorry. No interview for you.”

My talk (“Why We cannot Actually Talk About Climate”) was about this. During the talk, I came clean about the pop quiz, telling all what an acceptable answer was. I also showed the audience the equation of transfer and Schrödinger’s equation too, which are both crucial to understanding how carbon dioxide could heat things up. These differential equations are each extremely famous— Hollywood famous— in the scientific world. There are endless things to say about them, and their physical significance, but I merely asked whether the audience could name them or not.

I browbeat them with the question, “If you cannot even name them, why are you even here?” How can you know what the 97 percent allegedly agreed to, when you don’t know anything about the topic? For all you know they could have agreed to sell your possessions and give them to charity. How can you have any debate, when the topic of the debate is out of bounds of polite conversation? At lunch I noted to colleagues that most (but not all) journalists seemed to disappear from the scientific session, and the zombies had wandered off to seek other brains to devour. Science seemed not to be the topic of interest, even when science was the actual topic.

Then a senior looking stranger sat down opposite me at my table. He started to ask me some questions, as if it were the beginning of an interview.

“Did you see my talk?” I said.

“No. Sorry, I had some important things to discuss here in the lunch room,” he replied.

“Very well.” I responded, “Tell me what you know about the Navier Stokes equation.”

Bewilderment..humming and hawing.

“Well, I actually don’t know what it is.” So, again, “no interview for you.”

But he was too experienced to take no for an answer, and started in about what my scientific colleagues think and how I might explain that some of their views differ from mine, etc.

I sighed and said, “If you want to talk about science, stop talking about other people and start talking about actual properties of the natural world. I am happy to talk to you about actual science.”

“But what about the differing views of other scientists?” he pressed.

“Do you know of Richard Feynman?” I asked.


“Do you know of his book, ‘What Do You Care What Other People Think?’”


“That’s how to talk about science to scientists: don’t think with someone else’s head. Feynman also famously defined science as a ‘belief in the ignorance of experts.’ Believe in the ignorance of experts—you can count on it.”

But just then I was called back to the session, so that is how we left it. I later read his business card. He was the environment editor of a major international newspaper. I shall decline to name it, because I aim to discuss ideas and not other people whenever possible.


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