Climate Scientists, Our Cassandras

Geroge Romney, "Lady Hamilton as Cassandra "

Geroge Romney, “Lady Hamilton as Cassandra “


Of all the issues confronting us in this election, none is bigger than climate change. Either we will put into power a party that acknowledges that we must take action to avert disastrous climate events and rising sea levels—or a party that has nominated a candidate who calls climate change a Chinese hoax and who promises to reverse what progress we have made. In short, voting wisely has never been more consequential.

Yet despite the clear and present danger, Paul Krugman of The New York Times points out that no questions about climate change were asked at the three presidential debates. It’s as though a gag order has been dropped on the issue.

Climate scientists and policy experts must feel a lot like Cassandra, the Trojan daughter of Priam whose gift from Apollo was the gift of prophecy and whose punishment (when she resisted his advances) was that no one would believe her. Imagine them bewailing the future as Cassandra does in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. She was not believed when she warned against the Trojan Horse, and now she foresees her own death at Clytemnestra’s hands:

Woe for my city, woe for Ilion’s fall! 
Father, how oft with sanguine stain 
Streamed on thine altar-stone the blood of cattle, slain 
That heaven might guard our wall! 
But all was shed in vain. 
Low lie the shattered towers whereas they fell, 
And I–ah burning heart!–shall soon lie low as well.

Robinson Jeffers also captures our situation in his own Cassandra poem, which my mother alerted me to. His observation that “Truly men hate the truth, they’d liefer/Meet a tiger on the road” has been borne out by climate change politics. (Climate denialists would liefer face California wildfires and increasingly severe hurricanes than face up to what’s causing them.) Currently we have many “religion-vendors” and “political men” who are pouring, “from the barrel, new lies on the old.”

Apparently Jeffers, following World War I, predicted that another global cataclysm would follow if weren’t careful. It goes to show that people don’t listen to poets any more than they do to climate scientists or cursed prophetesses. When our seers mumble a “crust of truth” in the corners where we have exiled them, we regard them with disgust.


By Robinson Jeffers

The mad girl with the staring eyes and long white fingers
Hooked in the stones of the wall,
The storm-wrack hair and screeching mouth: does it matter, Cassandra,
Whether the people believe
Your bitter fountain? Truly men hate the truth, they’d liefer
Meet a tiger on the road.
Therefore the poets honey their truth with lying; but religion-
Vendors and political men
Pour from the barrel, new lies on the old, and are praised for kindly
Wisdom. Poor bitch be wise.
No: you’ll still mumble in a corner a crust of truth, to men
And gods disgusting—you and I, Cassandra. 

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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