Prof. Paul Miller (BIOL) and Prof. Sabine von Mering (GES, WGSS) sat down with moderator Prof. Charles Chester (ENVS) on Nov. 5 for an event titled, “Fiddling While Rome Burns: Understanding Humankind’s Response to Climate Change.” The event was offered as a part of  Brandeis’ Critical Conversations. Miller, a scientist, and von Mering, an activist, shared how their different backgrounds have shaped their ideas of what is most important in the scramble to combat climate change. 

Von Mering and Miller first addressed the existence of the climate crisis, both emphasizing the lack of legitimate science contradicting the claims of climate scientists. Miller pointed out that there is a need for balance between trusting the scientific community to produce reliable data and also doubting and recreating studies if needed. 

“Is there enough certainty to act [on climate change]?” Miller asked. “The answer is, yes.”

Chester then asked how the activist and scientific communities can change the minds of climate change deniers. Von Mering turned to the audience and reminded them of their responsibilities. 

“The problem is not deniers,” she said. “The problem is all the good people that understand the problem and are just putting other things first.” 

Von Mering stressed the importance of individuals changing their own behavior, referring to the approach in Copenhagen, Denmark, where most of the population chooses bikes over cars. 

Miller, on the other hand, placed an emphasis on policy change. “There are enough states run by deniers that [states] are going to be emitting a lot of carbon dioxide,” he said. “We have got to get them on our side.” Additionally, Miller emphasized the need for advocacy, stressing the importance of the gas tax and the Paris Climate Accord. He specifically acknowledged the importance of the Paris Climate accord as the United States began the process on Nov. 4 to formally withdraw from the Accord. The United States will complete the withdrawal process next year, according to a Nov. 4 article by NPR

Von Mering and Miller also discussed the role of technology in the climate crisis. “I think it is a lot easier to get people to change with technology that is available and is simply a switch,” said Miller, who shared the importance of appealing, readily available and cost-effective technology. One emerging field is technology created to reduce the production and use of animal products but convincing carnivorous Americans to embrace meat substitutes can be challenging.

“To get everyone in America eating 100% vegetarian, they need to design burgers that taste as good to the red-blooded, never-gonna-hug-a-tree American,” Miller said.

Although von Mering said technology was undoubtedly important, she also mentioned that with a catastrophe progressing as quickly as the climate crisis, “We are going to need to come up with a lot more radical changes to the way we live.” 

Von Mering explained that the scientific review process creates a multi-year informational lag, meaning reliance on the slow development of technology is not always effective. 

“Radical change is going to happen by design or by disaster,” she said. “Right now, unfortunately, we are looking at it happening by disaster.”

Both also acknowledged some ways that they, along with fellow scientists and activists, have been ineffective in creating effective and needed change. Miller said that many climate scientists face a dilemma about their own career paths, and he acknowledged that conducting research and publishing their studies can often mean less time teaching and advocating for anti-climate change policies.  

“Those who end up being the best for changing the world are not going to be successful scientists,” he said. 

Von Mering also discussed a new approach to raising awareness about the crisis — theatrical performance. She discussed how clowning has helped draw people to start an open conversation about climate change, creating a less intimidating and charged interaction. To lighten the mood, she scrolled through photos of her wearing the polar bear costume that has debuted on campus. 

“People’s anger goes down and they are more willing to talk,” she said, “and I think what we need the most is to talk about this.”