I know, I know. It’s the “Hysterical Doomsaying Scientists” vs the “What’s Wrong With These People? Don’t They Care About Their Grandkids?” folks. How can we ever find common ground? I’ve just discovered someone who’s devoting her life to that effort, and I’ll introduce her to you shortly.
Here’s what we don’t need in this discussion. A recent video surfaced that showed kangaroos hopping in the snow in Australia. Conservative author/filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza tweeted about it: “Global warming comes to Australia. Unless you want to believe your lying eyes.”
D’Souza, an ardent climate change denier, was playing “gotcha” with the climate scientists. The problem was that he was oblivious to the fact that when it’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s winter in Australia. As in now.
Nevertheless, Australia is experiencing serious impact from climate change, report its government websites. It’s having less snowfall, but it’s still having some.
So we can strike D’Souza off our list of reliable sources. Agreed? I certainly hope so.
One big change among climate scientists fairly recently is that they have better tools than previously, enabling them to speak more definitively about the association between some dramatic, never-before-seen events and climate change.
They can run giant simulations in their labs to determine the amounts of moisture in the air and energy in the ocean associated with today’s climatic events and compare them with those in the past.
Hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons today, they find, are bigger, wetter, and faster-moving than they used to be. Climate change isn’t hovering somewhere in the not-too-distant future. We’re living with it now.
An Important Report
The Washington Post recently published a lengthy report: “2 degrees C BEYOND THE LIMIT: Extreme climate change has arrived in America.” It provides an in-depth look at the two states in the Lower 48 that are warming the fastest of all: New Jersey and Rhode Island.
Scientists have been using an increase in temperature of 2-degrees Celsius as the danger cutoff for some time. But this report cites New Jersey as having already reached that point in some places—twice the average for the Lower 48 states—and Rhode Island having exceeded it. (Alaska is the US state that’s warming the fastest.)
In fact, the Northeast in general is warming faster than some other parts of the country. That may seem surprising, as we’re accustomed to hearing about the forest fires in California and flooding in the South and Midwest. I always thought of the folks in Miami, who watch water burbling up through their sidewalks on sunny days, as the harbinger of things to come.
The reason for this Northeast warming, scientists conjecture, seems to be a cycle involving warmer winters and very warm water offshore, which leads to less ice and snow cover. The latter reflect solar radiation into space, cooling the planet. “But as the ice and snow retreat,” the reporters note, “the ground absorbs the solar radiation and warms.”
During the winter months (December-February), New Jersey’s average temperature is higher than 0-degrees Celsius, the freezing point for water. Not surprisingly, that freezing point, according to New Jersey state climatologist David A. Robinson,”is the most critical threshold among all temperatures.”
It’s happened over three decades, and the result, the Post reports, is that
“lakes don’t freeze as often, snow melts more quickly, and insects and pests don’t die as they once did in the harsher cold.”
The Changes Around Us
What does this change look like? Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey, used to be the site of winter carnivals, with 15,000 ice skaters, cars driving onto the lake’s thick icy surface, and hockey clubs competing. No more. According to the Post:
“That’s because a century of climbing temperatures has changed the character of the Garden State. The massive ice industry and skate sailing association are but black-and-white photographs at the local museum. And even the hardy souls who still try to take part in ice fishing contests here have had to cancel 11 of the past dozen competitions for fear of straying onto perilously thin ice and tumbling into the frigid water.”
This thinning ice allows aquatic weeds, nourished by fertilizer runoff that colder water would kill, to thrive. This year, after one of the warmest springs yet, blue-green algae took over the lake, shutting it down to swimming and fishing “for weeks, if not longer.”
The algae, cyanobacteria, is the same substance that killed 3 dogs swimming in a North Carolina pond and another 3 dogs swimming in a lake in Austin, Texas. Imagine taking your dog for a swim in a lake you’ve always frequented, not knowing it’s become toxic.
Among the changes cited in the Post’s report: rainfall in New Jersey last year was 40% above average, and that means the famous Jersey mosquitoes are in their element, enjoying longer seasons and importing such gifts as the West Nile virus.
The warmer temperatures have attracted the southern pine beetle to travel north, damaging 20,000 acres of the Pine Barrens, a national reserve. A Dartmouth researcher, Matthew Ayres, says:
“It may not be too long before people are driving through the Pinelands saying ‘Why do they call it the Pinelands?’”
When Climate Change Suddenly Becomes Visible
“Climate change plays havoc differently in different places,” the reporters observe.
Beach erosion is the key problem in Rhode Island, where people with homes close to the ocean scramble to move them back farther and farther. Three feet of beach are lost each year. Whole communities are relocating as the water encroaches. A summer resident of one community said the residents wanted the owners to build a wall to hold back the sea. “Last year, they spent a lot of money on sand,” he said. “Guess what? It’s all gone.”
The Post reporters note:
“That’s what people who live in 2-degree Celsius zones are discovering: that climate change seems remote or invisible, until all of a sudden it is inescapable.”
Narragansett Bay has warmed 1.6 degrees Celsius over the last 50 years, and in the past 20 years, Rhode Island’s lobster industry has dropped 75%.
“With 420 miles of coastline, Rhode Island is particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of the Gulf Stream, a massive warm current that travels up the East Coast from the Gulf of Mexico before making a right turn toward Greenland and Europe.”
Scientists believe that the melting of Arctic ice has slowed the currents, moving the Gulf Stream closer to the East Coast. That, in turn, has warmed the water by 2-degrees Celsius or more in places and is apparently responsible for the hotter air temperatures as well.
Lest the skeptics point to severe winters as evidence to the contrary, the reporters note:
“This doesn’t mean the states can’t have extreme winters anymore. Polar vortex events, in which frigid Arctic air descends into the heart of the country, can still bring biting cold. But the overall trend remains the same and is set to continue. One recent study found that by the time the entire globe crosses 2 degrees Celsius, the Northeast can expect to have risen by about 3 degrees Celsius, with winter temperatures higher still.”
These trends are, of course, worldwide. Though much of the Earth has warmed 1-degree Celsius over the century, areas in Romania and Mongolia have also registered the 2-degree change seen in parts of the US.
“…for huge swaths of the planet, climate change is a present-tense reality, not one looming ominously in the distant future.”
The Post quotes Daniel Pauly, a marine scientist at the University of British Columbia:
“…the 2-degree Celsius hot spots are early warning sirens of a climate shift. ‘Basically, these hot spots are chunks of the future in the present.’”
All this sounds quite scary, and those on the “denier” side point to the alleged hysteria as a reason not to pay attention. But there is still time for meaningful action to slow and even reverse these trends—if we work together with common purpose.
A Key Question
So how do we get the skeptics to buy into our shared concern in order to move us toward meaningful action?
Enter Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University, where she is director of the Climate Science Center. Hayhoe spends a great deal of her time talking to people about climate science and how we can both adapt to and improve our changing environments.
I watched her 2018 TEDWomen Talk and listened to Alan Alda interview her on his podcast, Clear and Vivid. She’s funny, knowledgeable, and wise, and I recommend both her TEDWomen Talk (also available in transcript, with references) and the Alda podcast. I’ve intermingled her comments below.
“So when we turn on the TV these days, it seems like pundit X is saying, ‘It’s cold outside. Where is global warming now?’ And politician Y is saying, ‘For every scientist who says this thing is real, I can find one who says it isn’t.’ So it’s no surprise that sometimes we feel like everybody is saying these myths.
“But when we look at the data — and the Yale Program on Climate [Change] Communication has done public opinion polling across the country now for a number of years — the data shows that actually 70 percent of people in the United States agree that the climate is changing. And 70 percent also agree that it will harm plants and animals, and it will harm future generations.”
And yet…only about 60 percent of people think it will affect people in the United States, and only 40 percent think it will affect them personally. (I doubt whether the couple who lost their 3 dogs in a toxic North Carolina lake think that.)
What’s more, two-thirds of people in the US say they never talk about it, and more than three-fourths say they don’t hear the media talk about it either.
“So it’s a vicious cycle. The planet warms. Heat waves get stronger. Heavy precipitation gets more frequent. Hurricanes get more intense. Scientists release yet another doom-filled report. Politicians push back even more strongly, repeating the same sciencey-sounding myths.”
“What can we do to break this vicious cycle? The number one thing we can do is the exact thing that we’re not doing: talk about it. But you might say, ‘I’m not a scientist. How am I supposed to talk about radiative forcing or cloud parametrization in climate models?’ We don’t need to be talking about more science; we’ve been talking about the science for over 150 years.”
Hayhoe says it was more than 150 years ago that climate scientists first discovered that burning coal, gas, and oil resulted in “heat-trapping gases…wrapping an extra blanket around the planet.”
And, she notes, the first formal warning from scientists that changing climate presented a danger was given to President Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago. What’s holding some of us back from accepting this reality?
“…the social science has taught us that if people have built their identity on rejecting a certain set of facts, then arguing over those facts is a personal attack. It causes them to dig in deeper, and it digs a trench, rather than building a bridge.”
And while climate change is also regarded as a danger to our outdated infrastructure, this is one bridge we really need to build—and soon. But how do we do it?
Building That Bridge…
Hayhoe suggests finding something you have in common with a person. In her interview with Alan Alda, she speaks of a mutual interest in gardens.
“I ask them ‘What do you grow? Are there challenges?’ They’ll say ‘no rain, everything died,’ or ‘torrential rains.’
“I ask, ‘Have you noticed…? Most people say “Yeah, we’ve always had droughts, but more in the past few years,’ or ‘Spring comes earlier…’”
She stresses that we can bypass the question of whether or not these problems are manmade. We are seeking commonality in finding solutions. The farmer whose crop insurance consists of devoting some of his acreage to wind and solar is a case in point. Look for local solutions to local concerns. How we got to this point is less important than how we get out.
“All we have to do is connect the dots between the values they already have and why they would care about a changing climate. I truly believe, after thousands of conversations that I’ve had over the past decade and more, that just about every single person in the world already has the values they need to care about a changing climate. They just haven’t connected the dots. And that’s what we can do through our conversation with them.
“The bottom line is, we don’t have to be a liberal tree hugger to care about a changing climate. All we have to be is a human living on this planet. Because no matter where we live, climate change is already affecting us today…”
“What we need to fix this thing is rational hope. Yes, we absolutely do need to recognize what’s at stake…But we need a vision of a better future — a future with abundant energy, with a stable economy, with resources available to all, where our lives are not worse but better than they are today.
“There are solutions. And that’s why the second important thing that we have to talk about is solutions — practical, viable, accessible, attractive solutions. Like what? Well, there’s no silver bullet, as they say, but there’s plenty of silver buckshot.”
Some “Silver Buckshot”
Here are a few pieces of silver buckshot that Hayhoe points out both save money and reduce our carbon footprints:
*eating lower down the food chain
*reducing food waste
This last one fascinates me. We throw away about one-third of our food, and methane from rotting foods in landfills is an even worse source of warming than carbon dioxide. After China and the US, food waste is the third leading contributor to climate change, Hayhoe says. So I guess it’s time for me to compare our shopping lists with our actual eating habits and what we toss away.
There’s also hope in the corporate world. Apple has decarbonized its entire operations. Walmart and Berkshire Hathaway are making changes. So are various agricultural and oil and gas companies (but not BP, which obstructs climate improvement actions behind the scenes, Hayhoe reports.)
And guess who Hayhoe finds the most effective sector of the population in driving awareness and working toward solutions? Kids!
“Children are speaking up—so genuine and real: ‘We need to preserve the planet.’”
Hayhoe cites a North Carolina study that found educating children about climate change had a positive and noticeable impact: when a young daughter spoke to her conservative father, she moved his position.
“The world is changing. But it just isn’t changing fast enough. Too often, we picture this problem as a giant boulder sitting at the bottom of a hill, with only a few hands on it, trying to roll it up the hill.
“But in reality, that boulder is already at the top of the hill. And it’s got hundreds of millions of hands, maybe even billions on it, pushing it down. It just isn’t going fast enough. So how do we speed up that giant boulder so we can fix climate change in time? You guessed it. The number one way is by talking about it.
“The bottom line is this: climate change is affecting you and me right here, right now, in the places where we live. But by working together, we can fix it. Sure, it’s a daunting problem. Nobody knows that more than us climate scientists. But we can’t give in to despair. We have to go out and actively look for the hope that we need, that will inspire us to act. And that hope begins with a conversation today.”
So are you encouraged to have a conversation? Do you think it’s realistic to find common ground on this vital issue that affects us all—including those who don’t think it’s even an issue? And are you letting your representatives at all levels know how important you think this topic is?
And if you’re a skeptic, how would you react if your child, grandchild, or other young person close to you made a rational appeal—for the sake of their future?