Options

“Failure is not an option,” words famously uttered by Ed Harris as NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz in the 1995 movie Apollo 13, weren’t really his. Instead, they were coined during the film’s creative process. As NASA Flight Controller Jerry Bostick says of meeting with the screenwriters tasked with developing the script:

One of their questions was, “Weren’t there times when everybody, or at least a few people, just panicked?” My answer was, “No, when bad things happened, we just calmly laid out all the options, and failure was not one of them. We never panicked, and we never gave up on finding a solution.” I immediately sensed that [writer] Bill Broyles wanted to leave and assumed that he was bored with the interview. Only months later did I learn that when they got in their car to leave, he started screaming, “That’s it! That’s the tag line for the whole movie, Failure is not an option. Now we just have to figure out who to have say it.” Of course, they gave it to the Kranz character, and the rest is history.

Truly bad things have been happening lately: deadly wildfires, increasing numbers of hurricanes, rising air and water temperatures, pandemic and climate challenges all at once.

As California Governor Gavin Newsom said among the ashes and coal of forests in Oroville, CA, this week: “We’re fighting against [increasing greenhouse gas emissions] . . . This is a climate damn emergency. This is real and it’s happening.”

Or as Philip Duffy, President of the Woodwell Climate Research Center, was quoted in the New York Times on climate’s role in recent wildfires: “Fundamentally the science is very, very simple. Warmer and drier conditions create drier fuel. What would have been a fire easily extinguished now just grows very quickly and becomes out of control.”

Or as environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben wrote for The New Yorker last month: “On climate change, we’ve run out of Presidential terms to waste . . . Here’s what this means: if Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take over the White House, in January, they’re going to be dealing with an immediate and overwhelming climate crisis, not just the prospective dilemma that other Administrations have faced. It’s not coming; it’s here.”

It’s past time for us to lay out our options for the climate emergency as calmly as the NASA team did. Key word team. Everyone, or as many everyones as we can muster, must join in. A very smart acquaintance of mine said as recently as last year, “Just because we don’t believe in climate change doesn’t mean it’s our fault.”

Interesting statement, but beside the point. Even if climate change weren’t our fault, we’re like the Apollo 13 astronauts: stuck in space without a viable spacecraft. It’s not about whose fault it is. It’s about all of us, the human race, becoming a cohesive team, looking at the facts, and laying out our options.

We can cry or pray or throw up our hands—that will be part of it—but then we’ve got to face the facts and get to work.

Okay, here are a few observations I’ve picked up from both my career in environmental science and an eye on today’s news. These things make us different from the Apollo team:

  • We aren’t unified behind a strong leader who believes we can handle this—and more to the point wants to handle it
  • We can’t even talk about it, sometimes don’t even think about it, which is where planning usually begins
  • We don’t have a flight plan or even a Plan B (though some nations are working on one in the Paris Agreement).

So how do we unite behind a leader, talk about climate without losing our minds and our friends, and get a plan for the health of our planet, our children’s future, our survival?

Certainly not by believing old, tired myths. Powerful myths embedded in the fabric of culture may be counterproductive but can be busted (Bill Moyers helped clarify that):

And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. And where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

Myths perpetuated about climate change veil important data: the correlation of rising CO2 emissions with rising global temperatures, for instance, or monitoring results showing increasing heat and drought.

We need to scrap the myths. We need to look at the bad things happening, see them clearly for what they are. We need to map out our plans for mitigation, adaptation, and offsetting our changing climate. We’re late getting started, but so were those in the NASA Apollo 13 mission.

Kranz and team were working to offset a problem built into the spacecraft years prior. Still, they didn’t throw up their hands and say this isn’t our fault. Instead they didn’t consider failure as one of their options and never gave up on finding a solution.

One thing we can do right now, all of us, is to counter the myths on climate. Let’s just look at what is really happening.

I’ve put together a short list of easily accessible and trustworthy sources to support anyone’s climate learning. This is a list to keep on hand, with sources even a skeptic can dig into and trust. Request the list here.

Then just speak up. Stick with fact-based stories. The facts come from science; the stories are your own. Are you one of a growing list of evacuees? Lose power in historically high winds? Can’t breathe because of smoke from wildfires? Check out the causes, gently rebut the tall tales, build your own expertise. Know the top ten climate myths still perpetuated by deniers and fence-sitters alike. For instance, the fabulous website Skeptical Science lists these top ten climate myths:

  1. Climate has changed before
  2. The sun is to blame
  3. Global warming isn’t so bad
  4. There’s no scientific consensus
  5. Climate’s actually cooling
  6. The climate models are unreliable
  7. Temperature records are unreliable
  8. Animals and plants can adapt
  9. The planet hasn’t warmed since 1998
  10. Antarctica is gaining ice.

Um, no. Skeptical Science goes on to list what science really says. The truth is that each of the above statements was proved wrong some time ago. They’re still powerful myths, though, and debilitating to our progress toward planetary survival.

Gene Kranz may not have originated the phrase “Failure is not an option,” but he’s come to exemplify it. He even gave the name to his 2009 autobiography. One thing he did say was the people who brought home the Apollo 13 astronauts against impossible odds “were people who were energized by a mission . . . capable of moving right on and doing anything America asked them to do in space.”

Sounds like a plan for Spaceship Earth.


Find my recent book of essays, 2020 Nautilus Book Award Winner and 2019 Oregon Book Award and Foreword INDIE Finalist The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, 2019), at your local bookseller, Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

6 Comments

  1. Thank you for the links. A lot of good reading there.

  2. So many climate change facts can stem from personal experiences, if people are simply willing to accept them at face value. A fundamental problem seems to be people’s willingness to accept their experiences (e.g., heat waves, smoke irritation, etc.) as unusual and possibly harbingers of difficult times to come. Too many of us are too willing to instead be comforted by delusion.

    • Spoken like a true scientist, Michael Taraszki! Observation, postulating, more observation–the enemies of delusion. Thank you for your own great work in environmental science–and writing.

  3. Thank you Becca! Experiencing the smoke, near-evacuations of relatives in Portland (I always thought I could head north out of the fire zone), and 114 degrees in Glen Ellen while living in a rebuilt house on a property that burned in 2017…It’s getting scary real. I’m in need of cultivating more hope and ‘Failure is not an option’ is a slogan I’m going to keep handy in the days ahead.

    • OMG Arthur! One hundred fourteen in Glen Ellen. Sheesh, Sahara in Sonoma Valley. And yes, here up north, the air isn’t breathable, folks have fled for their lives as you did in 2017, and some have not been fortunate enough to get out. You’re a role model to me, just as believing failure is not an option offers a glimmer of hope. Having the courage to rebuild, doing it right as you have — thank you for showing us the way while stuff gets scary real. Plus your writing the hope inherent in protecting natural places like Sonoma Mountain and helping us understand the lessons from historical ecology — so critical. Stay safe!

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