The Executive Summary of All Executive Summaries

Eric Roston“Who am I? Why am I here?” Admiral James Stockdale uttered those words on national television, to laughter and applause among audience members, at the 1992 vice-presidential debate. They are questions worth asking ourselves every once in a while.

I’m a journalist who has spent the better part of the last three years reading thousands of scientific articles, interviewing hundreds of scientists, and pouring over many books by science-writers and writer-scientists, seeking a way to draw out the connective tissue, the dynamic, intriguing science that unifies what we think of as disparate things, but once you scratch the surface, really aren’t. As it turns out, the fastest way to learn the most about the world–climate, energy, health and industry–is through the carbon atom.

That doesn’t explain why I’m here. I’m here because I’m a fan of Joe’s good work and hope to chat with Climate Progress readers about new ideas for thinking about climate and the context in which we discuss it. Here’s one idea.

My house is filled with books and paper and notebooks in quantities that are difficult to order. That doesn’t include the number of peer-reviewed journal articles and electronic books you can fit on a 1 gigabyte flash memory stick. Every good nonfiction writer knows his or her job is to simplify things. We live by Occam’s Razor and by Einstein’s related dictum that everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.


In that spirit, I was turning over my basement recently, looking for some interview notes (The basement is not as simple as possible). I wondered what all this research would look like condensed to two sentences. Every day reports come out–economic, scientific, predictive, retrospective, lifeless, hysterical. What would the executive summary of all executive summaries look like? With some cautious feedback from senior scientists, I think an irreducible two-sentence description of global warming comes down to this:

  1. Temperature and atmospheric carbon rise and fall together on every geological time scale.
  2. Humans are adding carbon to the atmosphere more than 100 times faster than any known precedent, heating and transforming the Earth.

— Eric R.


4 Responses to The Executive Summary of All Executive Summaries

  1. Glad to see you here, Eric. Simpify. I like you already.

    I would slightly expand your ExecSumm to include “Humans have the brain capacity and collaborative abilities to discover their mistakes and correct them.”

  2. Eric Roston says:

    Cliff —

    Spot on! Had I given myself three sentences, that would be the logical choice. Well-phrased.


  3. JakeBrewer says:

    Great post, Eric. Great addition, Cliff.

    Brutally and honestly recognize and state the problem. Vividly imagine something better. Strongly connect the resources, people, organizations and ideas needed. Take action effectively and responsibly.

  4. Dave Hampton says:

    Perfect + 2 great adds.

    There might be one along the lines of

    “and if temp and carbon CONTINUE to rise and fall together as they always have, then primary school logic says that the carbon we have already added will soon be accompanied by a very nasty slug of temperature rise (already in the system) – pro-rata – more than ten times the 0.7 degrees we have seen to date?” “We have to hope that nature somehow moderates this burn, although there are no obvious reasons why it should, whereas there are reasons why positive feedback may make it worse than that. This is not alarmist – it is alarming.”
    and sorry to be stuck in a slightly desparate rut but the sentence that goes with this is:
    “The fact that climate catastrophe is so clearly so close at hand and yet so widely denied casts doubt on humans ability to think or collaborate in the face of headlights so bright and so close at hand. It also suggests that political and social structures and communication media must be playing a major part in holding back human understanding, acceptance and action.
    The crimes of those who still farcically deny global warming will surely be investigated by our children, and we should hold them to account now.