Without urgent action, we could face threats to water, food, biodiversity and other critical resources.
I don’t take these concerns lightly. Global changes of a massive scale suggest some very worrisome trends, which have led to some very bleak projections. So it behooves us to pay attention to the state of the planet. (It is also reasonable to hash out the metrics used for these projections.) I’m no panglossian, notwithstanding my distaste for breathless catastrophizing. I think we should pay close attention to how the earth is being altered by 7 billion people and what those alterations may portend.
What bothers me most about this debate is how it swings between two opposite poles. I suppose it happens this way because voices are loudest at these ends and the tug-of-war conflict makes for a convenient narrative. Read More
Are we at a crossroads in the climate debate? Will the renewed attention being paid to global warming in the wake of Hurricane Sandy be a lasting “teachable moment,” or more of a Groundhog Day-like moment?
What do I mean? Let’s recall the wave of media (and science) coverage that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It served as a preview of the climate change/severe weather meme that has now become an effective frame for climate communicators. Additionally, in 2006, Al Gore’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth helped to widely publicize the perils of climate change. That same year, Time magazine warned us:
Yes, there were a lot of teachable moments during the mid-2000s. And people seemed to be paying attention. I bet many thought a corner had been turned.
Alas, public opinion on global warming swings easily (and superficially) between concern and indifference, like “waves in a shallow pan, with a lot of sloshing but not a lot of depth,” Andy Revkin has observed. Thus it was no surprise when the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 pushed the looming climate crisis off the public radar. In the next few years, the bleak economy and political forces in the United States (such as the rise of the Tea Party and the GOP’s dismissal of climate science) combined to make climate change an increasingly partisan issue that President Obama was eager to avoid during the 2012 election.
Enter Hurricane Sandy. The massive, destructive storm has thrust global warming back into the national conversation these past few weeks. Michael Bloomberg’s 11th-hour endorsement of Obama for reelection made big news in large part because of the Mayor’s emphasis on climate change as a reason. Thought leaders, scientists, and pundits have similarly talked up climate change in a Sandy context. The media has done its part to stoke the conversation.
Most of these efforts, as I discussed here, have sought to reinforce the message that “Frankenstorm” Sandy is a manifestation of greenhouse gas-fueled climate change and symbolic of the “new normal.” However, there are some (who care deeply about communicating the climate threat) that have argued this may not be a wise strategy. Read, for example, George Marshall’s essay at Revkin’s Dot Earth blog. Marshall, if you aren’t familiar with him, heads up the UK-based Climate Outreach and Information Network. Nobody can accuse him of being a crypto climate denialist or Big Oil stooge. His work is singularly focused on getting people engaged with climate change. Here’s an excerpt of his recent essay:
In the wake of extreme heat, droughts, and Hurricane Sandy, many people are assuming that, at last, there may be the critical mass of extreme weather events that will tip public opinion towards action on climate change.
This is based on the long held assumption that extreme climate events will increase awareness and concern ““ and this would seem logical considering that climate change suffers as an issue from distance and a consequent lack of salience.
However this assumption deserves to be challenged. Climate change awareness is complex and strongly mediated by socially constructed attitudes. I suggest that there are some countervailing conditions ““ especially in the early stages of climate impacts. It is important to recognize that many of the social and cultural obstacles to belief are not removed by major impacts and may, indeed, be reinforced.
I encourage people to read the whole piece to grasp his argument. I kinda doubt that President Obama, in the aftermath of his victory, had time to read it. But he seems to understand the complicated cultural dynamics that Marshall discusses. In his recent press conference, the President said this:
So what I’m going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers, and elected officials to find out what can — what more can we do to make a short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary — a discussion, a conversation across the country about what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.
Initially, I scoffed at this as an empty gesture. But I wonder if my critical judgement was too hasty. Maybe the way to build long-term, sustainable engagement with climate change is through an educational “listening tour,” the likes of which Revkin and Mathew Nisbet have previously proposed. I realize that such an approach sounds modest compared to Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour and the groundswell of support for climate action he is currently trying to build. But the two goals need not be mutually exclusive.
That said, the headlines continue to paint a narrative that works against the deliberative, consensus-building efforts that President Obama favors. This week, the World Bank issued a report (more a clarion call) that has been picked up widely in the media and accompanied by an op-ed by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim titled, “The Latest Predictions on Climate Change Should Shock Us Into Action.”
This latest alarming bulletin and the sense of urgency expressed by the World Bank feeds into a dominant narrative that, for many people, was epitomized by Hurricane Sandy. What will be interesting to see is if this Wake Up World! narrative diverts attention away from another important conversation that we should be having in a post-Sandy world that needs to be re-engineered with climate change in mind.
Can we have more than one climate conversation at the same time?
The debate over climate change is well known for excesses on all sides. Those who claim that the issue is a hoax actually have a lot in common with those who see climate change in every weather extreme. The logic behind such tactics is apparently that a sufficiently scared public will support the political program of those doing the scaring.
This is from a new Denver Post opinion piece by Roger Pielke Jr.
All the main criticisms that Roger makes in the column have much merit, and yet he and I don’t seem to agree on the meaning of this statement (which I’ve bolded) by him:
But there is one group that should be very concerned about the spreading of rampant misinformation: the scientific community. It is, of course, thrilling to appear in the media and get caught up in highly politicized debates. But leading scientists and scientific organizations that contribute to a campaign of misinformation “” even in pursuit of a worthy goal like responding effectively to climate change “” may find that the credibility of science itself is put at risk by supporting scientifically unsupportable claims in pursuit of a political agenda.
So what is he saying here?
A blogger at Daily Kos rewinds back to the 1988 vice presidential debate and discovers that a question about global warming was posed to Dan Quayle about the the “Greenhouse Effect”:
I guess that’s what they called it back then, before Global Warming and Climate Change became popular…There was no, do you think it is real, or anything like that. I mean the question was asked in a matter of fact way as if it was accepted fact. Even more to my surprise, Quayle answered that a Bush/Quayle administration would work hard to combat the problem. I couldn’t believe my ears!! Have we really regressed that far, that 24 years later we don’t even accept the science now when the situation is much worse…let alone that fact that back then even Republicans said they would address the problem…
People have short memories. In January of 2008, here’s what John McCain said when he was vying to be the Republican Presidential candidate:
I will clean up the planet. I will make global warming a priority.
While on the campaign stump later that year, after he had pretty much locked up the Republican nomination, the LA Times reported:
Referring to melting glaciers in the Arctic Ocean and the vanishing habitats of polar bears and walruses, the Arizona senator and presumptive Republican nominee for president said it was time to stop quibbling over the causes of global warming. He pledged to “deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising waters and all the endless troubles that global warming will bring.”
And as the New York Times noted one month before the 2008 Presidential election, when it came to climate change, there was little daylight between the Democratic and Republican candidates:
Both candidates say that human-caused climate change is real and urgent, and that they would sharply diverge from President Bush’s course by proposing legislation requiring sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by midcentury.
So the question isn’t what happened between 1988 and 2012, as some are suggesting, but what happened since 2008?
Well, for starters, there’s the obvious: The economy was in a free fall when Obama got elected, so that changed the political dynamic. But the politics of global warming also became more one-sided, with the rise of the Tea Party as a dominant force in the Republican party. As the National Journal reported in 2011,
challenging climate science has become, in some circles, as much of a conservative litmus test as opposing taxes.
But if the latest trend on public attitudes holds firm, that litmus test for Republicans may not be viable much longer. This is not to say that partisanship and trench warfare on climate change are going to recede like the world’s ice sheets. But in a few years, we may look back at the 2008-2012 period (in terms of climate politics) as an anomaly, owing largely to a confluence of circumstances stemming from the global financial meltdown and the rightward shift of the GOP.
If the economy continues to rebound and severe weather continues to be associated with global warming, I bet the politics of climate change will soon return to what they were in 2008, when both major parties in the U.S. agreed that reducing greenhouse gases was an imperative.
Two bits of climate news caught my attention today. One comes from Grist’s David Roberts, who says:
Yikes: Avoiding dangerous climate change is still possible, but just barely.
Whew. Good to hear us humans are still mathematically in the race to avert climate doom.
But then I saw this article from ClimateWire, reporting:
India is poised to contend with China as the globe’s top consumer of coal, with 455 power plants preparing to come online, a prominent environmental research group has concluded.
The coal plants in India’s pipeline — almost 100 more than China is preparing to build — would deliver 519,396 megawatts of installed generating capacity. That is only slightly less than pending new capacity in China, which remains the undisputed king of coal consumption.
So is it game over, or what? Either way, can we at least agree with R.L. Burnside:
To frack or not to frack seems like a good question to ask in the context of the climate debate. To ignore it or dismiss it out of hand won’t make it go away. And now that Michael Bloomberg and a leading environmental organization are teaming up to make fracking environmentally friendly, you can bet that the debate is about to take a few new turns.
Where it’s headed I couldn’t say, but I do ask this question in a new post at Discover: “Will Fracking Help or Hinder the Fight Against Climate Change?”
If you follow climate-concerned bloggers and tweeters, as I do, you probably have noticed there is frequent mention of weather that implies a connection to climate change. Otherwise, what’s the point, right?
By way of example, browse Bill McKibben’s tweets. He’s become a dutiful chronicler of weather-related bad news. If you want to know that a bridge in Oklahoma buckled from the heat, or that rainfall in India’s grainbelt is 70 percent below average this year, he’s your man. This obsession doesn’t seem like a healthy habit; it’s as if he strapped himself down, Clockwork Orange style, to a continuous feed of weather news from all over the world.
But he’s hardly alone. Other climate writers diligently track the latest storm front to move in over New York City and the heat index in parched regions of the Midwest. Let it be said: Today is a good time to be a weather nerd. The heat waves and drought baking much of the United States this summer provides terrific fodder for climate activists and the environmental media.
It’s also got more people thinking about global warming, which climate activists have taken note of. They want to cement the impression that all our ugly summer weather is connected to climate change–or a harbinger of what’s to come–so they continue to play up all the record-breaking temps and drought-related misery.
But as Dan Moutal points out, there’s a problem with this tactic:
The heat-wave and drought will at some point come to an end and eventually many areas currently experiencing sweltering heat will be hit with a cold spell. It is only a matter of time.
If people’s acceptance of climate change depends mostly on whether or not it has been hot lately then as the temperature inevitably cools their acceptance of climate change will crumble. Polls are much like weather and climate; there are short-term fluctuations over-top of long-term trends. It is a shame many wanting action on climate change fail to see this.
Ah, but climate scientists are telling us that extreme weather is the “new normal.” It has been an oft-mentioned phrase this summer. Dan, in his post, explains why he finds this unhelpful in the long term:
This is the problem; reports of extreme weather will continue as long as it is hot out but all this talk of this being a new normal only works to send the wrong message to people.
When someone makes the “˜new normal’ claim I suspect many people expect that now this extreme weather will return every summer. That this is what a normal summer will look like from now on. What happens when we get a cool summer? What happens when we experience colder than normal temperatures? Won’t people start asking “what happened to this new normal?”
It’s good to see that some climate writers have their eyes on the big picture.
UPDATE: In the comments, Joshua raises, what I think, is a reasonable assumption:
maybe speaking of the new normal will cause people to think that the odds of experiencing this kind of weather are increased with climate change, and as a result, shorten the path between where we are now and significant policy implementation that addresses the many obstacles that stand in the way.
The contradictions in the climate debate make my head hurt. For years, we’ve been hearing that one of the biggest impediments to action is that people aren’t sufficiently alarmed and informed about global warming. And that this owes, in large part, to a collective media failing. Here’s Joe Romm in 2010:
The dreadful media coverage simply creates little space for rational public discourse. The media has for a long time downplayed the importance of the issue, miscovered key aspects of the debate, given equal time to pro-pollution disinformers, and generally failed to inform the public.
I don’t agree with this assessment; on the whole, there is ample evidence that belies Romm’s broad brush. Nonetheless, the media remains a convenient scapegoat for many in the climate concerned community. (How journalism is responsible for the failure of 20 years of international climate talks escapes me.) In any case, whoever/whatever is at fault, a bigger problem implied by Romm is the lack of “rational public discourse.”
But in recent years social scientists and cognitive researchers have been telling us that our brains are not equipped to respond rationally to climate change, which is now widely understood to be a “wicked” problem. Several days ago, this theme was discussed in a NY Times piece:
We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.
“You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
What he means by that is that our evolutionary brains are not built to deal with climate change. The danger signal that evolved in response to immediate threats to our survival through much of human history isn’t activated by the diffused and delayed impacts of greenhouse gases. To understand this is to understand that our behavior–even in the present technologically advanced era–is largely governed by evolutionary forces.
So if hostile aliens invaded the earth today I imagine the world would instantly come together in common cause. So far, the looming threat of climate change has not done that. Will it anytime soon? Unlikely.
But back to that Times article. For some reason I cannot fathom, it triggered an angry reaction from Romm. In short, he argues that the piece glossed over the political and ideological obstacles to climate action. Instead of blaming politicians, the media and the “anti-science pro-pollution ideologues” (you know who you are!), we were
subjected to a bunch of psychoanalysis and social science research about how we all have a mental block to solving the climate problem.
I think I know who has the mental block here.
I’m also starting to wonder if every article on climate change should carry this disclaimer: “This message was not approved by Joe Romm. It may not emphasize the full scope of the climate change-triggered apocalyptic death spiral of the human race, and it may not fully emphasize the full culpability of journalists, climate deniers, and all Republicans. May the climate Gods have mercy on my soul.”
Seriously, as one commenter at Romm’s site says, the author of the Times piece
wasn’t undertaking to comment on politics, or acting as an apologist for why a climate bill wasn’t passed. She wasn’t drawing a sharp moral judgment call between us, the people, and the politicians in Washington. It is a classic case of “our” blog looking for a difference of opinion “” a reason to take off the gloves “” when one did not exist.
So, I don’t see the purpose or the advantage gained from jumping down the throats of every individual who comments on some aspect of climate change who does not also, first and foremost, parrot the particular theme “” federal political inaction, is it? “” “everyone” here wants to hear.
Now I’m not saying that politics isn’t an important part of the equation. Perhaps the 2009 cap & trade legislation that died in the U.S. Senate would have put us on a path to somewhere hopeful. A lot of smart people were dubious about that, but still latched on–rationalizing that any path is better than the ditch we’ve been in for two decades. And now with one of the major U.S. political parties embracing a rejectionist stance on climate science, I can appreciate the pent up frustration of folks who correctly see no desire by either political party to talk about climate change, much less help chart a new path to a decarbonized world. But I’m willing to bet that this changes as soon as the economy fully recovers and the unemployment rate drops to Clinton Administration levels.
Meanwhile, what might change this dynamic (at least in the United States)? A large enough bloc of committed, passionate voters that makes its voice heard in Washington. A couple of hundred people chanting outside the White House gates isn’t going to do it. It has to be a sustained, organized movement. Something nourished at the grassroots that spreads and multiplies throughout congressional districts. Can Bill McKibben pull that off? Al Gore should give him his Nobel if he does.
Because there are no shortcuts. Greens and climate activists shouldn’t count on sporadic heat waves and wildfires to do the work for them. This is crucial because extreme weather and disasters has become crack cocaine to the climate community. Many of them are now hooked. And they come crashing down once the heat breaks and global warming disappears from the headlines. Don’t take my word for it. Here’s Paul Krugman in his last column:
When the mercury is high and the crops are withering, everyone talks about it, and some make the connection to global warming. But let the days grow a bit cooler and the rains fall, and inevitably people’s attention turns to other matters.
That’s a problem for a climate movement that looks good on the web but is a paper tiger in the real world. So what’s the game plan, other than beating up on the media and evil deniers? Paradoxically, more fossil fuels (in the short term), as Michael Tobis suggests here (my emphasis):
Our only hope is in the long game, and the sustained cultural shift. We have lost the decade already; by driving the world to the edge of economic chaos the Bush administration settled it for us. We need to recover the prosperity of the 90s before we take another run at major infrastructure and policy change. The new energy supplies will make this relatively easy.
Meanwhile we have to build a world which understands what is going on. Before there is deeper understanding (and more international trust) there will be no significant progress.
Many people already understand what is going on, of course, but never mind that. Once they have a steady job again and can make the monthly mortgage payment, their lizard brains will be receptive to a “cultural shift.”
How inconvenient. I go away on vacation for a few weeks and during that time everybody, it seems, becomes convinced that global warming has struck the earth like the Ten Plagues of Egypt. So does this mean the message (unabated carbon emissions = climate damnation) finally–finally!–has been received by 1) the media, 2) all earthlings (except faithful readers of WUWT and Climate Depot), 3) President Obama, and 4) China, India et al?
I know you’ve been waiting anxiously for my return so I can answer these crucial questions. I will not disappoint.
But first, let me say that during my vacation I was disconnected from what was happening in major regions across the United States. From June 28 to July 14, me and the family were (mostly) in Northern California, where the skies were blue (except for that charming San Francisco fog), and the weather was calm and comfortable. Now I am aware that I was in some sort of climatic Twilight Zone for two and half weeks, since nearly every morning I’d wake up to headlines in USA Today about the rest of the country being tormented by historic heat waves, power outages, and catastrophic fires. By the end of week one of our vacation, my Google news alert on climate change was ringing with stories that linked all the misery and disasters–either directly or indirectly–to global warming. Sneaking an occasional peek at my twitter feed on July 3 (I took a vow of no blogging or tweeting), I learned from some journalists and Penn State’s Michael Mann that the media was offering up “teachable moments”:
Busy time right now to be a climate scientist–in very good way. ‘Teachable moments’ perfect description of what we have here.
As if on cue, a piece that day in the Associated Press included a quote from the University of Arizona’s Jonathan Overpeck that connected all the heat waves/fires/climate change dots:
This is what global warming looks like at the regional or personal level.
By week two, while my wife and I were blissfully sampling wines in Napa and Sonoma (we left the kids with my brother for a 24-hour getaway) and all of us were lollygagging in Santa Cruz, Monterey, and Yosemite National Park, much of the rest of country was still being choked by unbearable heat and the misery index was climbing. A July 10 Time magazine headline asked:
Now do you believe in global warming?
Unsurprisingly, more people were saying yes. This follows a public opinion survey from two months ago that found Americans had become less concerned about global warming. That was then. We don’t need a pollster to tell us which way the wind blows today.
Or the media. Last week, Joe Romm woke up one day and couldn’t find an itch to scratch. Instead, he wrote that
we have the unprecedented situation of the evening news shows last night on ABC, CBS, and NBC (and PBS) all talking about the link between greenhouse gases and the stunning heat wave.
After returning home and reviewing much of the coverage and punditry that has connected global warming to the most recent extreme weather across the United States, I have to wonder: Is this a turning point in the way climate change is covered in the media? Perhaps more importantly, will this newly heightened and likely brief spike in awareness of global warming move beyond the usual climate porn stage to spur a more constructive discussion on how to reduce greenhouse gases?
Let me rephrase the question I asked at the outset: Do you think that if scientists and the media continue to pound away with the message of climate damnation that this will lead to action on climate change? That President Obama, in a second term, will make climate change his signature issue? That China and India will agree to curtail their economic growth, and by extension, their carbon emissions? That, absent any of these developments, a great swelling of the masses will rise up and demand politicians to take action?
So more people believe in global warming at this moment in time. Big deal. Let’s talk again in six months. And even then, if the public opinion needle has seriously moved, what does it matter if it doesn’t lead to reality-based discussion about solutions?
Is there an example from human history of a culture taking action with the intended beneficiaries being two or more generations downstream, when there’s no benefit or maybe even sacrifice to the current generation?
I haven’t been able to come up with one, and I suspect we’re just not genetically programmed to worry about two generations downstream. That may be the heart of the problem.
This is MIT atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel, in an interview at the NYT Green blog, on the vexing climate change conundrum. The whole piece is worth reading. I think what he says above speaks to one big reason why it’s so hard for climate change to get traction with the public. And that’s why, I believe, climate activists have latched on to the extreme weather/global warming campaign. It makes climate change more tangible and less distant. But that’s a problematic frame, as I recently discussed here.
In his interview with Emanuel, Justin Gillis writes:
Part of our discussion centered on rhetoric. A favored tactic of contrarians, and especially skeptic bloggers, is to set up what scientists like Dr. Emanuel consider to be straw-man arguments that they can then knock down.
We routinely read, for instance, that climate scientists are predicting imminent catastrophe, the deaths of millions, mass starvation, galloping sea-level rise and so on. The goal seems to be to paint the scientists as alarmist so that when a catastrophe does not materialize right away, they are made to seem foolish.
This is a bit of a strawman itself, for it’s true that the climate science community doesn’t make such predictions. But high profile surrogates for climate science routinely talk in catastrophic terms. Also, let’s not forget, to cite just one example, this highly publicized report released in 2009 (reviewed by the IPCC chairman and other notables), which the Guardian reported on (like others) without the least bit of critical assessment:
Climate change is already responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and is affecting 300m people, according to the first comprehensive study of the human impact of global warming.
But wait, I thought that such immense tragedy from climate change was not yet upon us? So I’m confused when Gillis, in his interview with Emanuel, writes:
Not only do most scientists not predict imminent catastrophe as a result of the warming of the planet, they formally acknowledge a wide range of uncertainty in the potential outcomes. Catastrophes of all sorts are among those possible outcomes, but few scientists claim these are certain, much less imminent.
Do you see what I’m getting at? There’s a lot of double talk going on, which no doubt confuses the public.
On the one hand, influential figures that shape climate discourse claim that global warming is already killing hundreds of thousands of people a year. On the other hand, we hear that climate scientists are unfairly accused of being alarmists. Well, guess what: The people that speak tacitly on behalf of climate science are often alarmist (with a little help from the media), and that’s where the impression comes from.
So where does the climate science community come down on the potential danger of climate change? Here’s Emanuel in the NYT article:
I can say that my field is almost unanimous in saying that we are facing serious risk. Things could turn out to be fine “” I hope they do. But there’s no evidence at all that would support an assertion that we’re not facing serious risk at this point.
I would agree with that. And I bet many rational-minded people along the climate spectrum do as well. So where do we go from here? Well, that’s the rub, concludes Gillis:
Scientists like Dr. Emanuel argue that the exact magnitude of the risk cannot and will not be quantified until it is too late to head off the potential ill consequences. Until society learns to think of the problem that way, the political discussion about climate change is likely to remain paralyzed.
True, but it might help if we could debate the magnitude of the risk without getting sidetracked by all the tenuous claims made about consequences of climate change purportedly happening right now. That may not be the heart of the problem, overall, but it’s a problem.