Stormy Weather

The IPCC report on climate change warns of serious consequences if we don’t curb fossil fuel emissions. Under what’s called a “business-as-usual” scenario, we will create a vastly diminished future for us and our children. We need to take responsibility for the adverse impact of our activities, drastically reduce environmentally destructive practices at organizational, policy, and individual levels, and work to remediate ecosystems.

There exists overwhelming scientific consensus (roughly 97% of scientists worldwide agree that humans cause global warming), and yet, a social consensus among the general US public – what climate change is, whether it exists, what to do about it – is lacking. This is remarkable in that most countries do accept the science. Resistance to climate science proceeds from a combination of factors: ignorance of science in the media and the public; poor communication by scientists themselves; poor science education in public schools; and, unfortunately, political opportunism and polarization. The result ranges from general confusion and social mistrust to outright hostility against those proposing action.

We should recognize the most frequent types of climate change antagonism, in order to avoid the pitfall ourselves. They typically take three forms:

1. Denialism

The problem(s) do not exist or are no big deal. Denialists say things like “we have been here before” and “it’s all a natural cycle and life goes on” and “humans cannot wreck what God created.” For example: when Senator James Inhofe threw a snowball in the congress – true, it was cold on THAT day, but what about the entire winter? Or the past 10 winters?

Inhofe mistakenly conflated “weather” with “climate.” Weather happens on a given day – we say “it’s going to be 72 and sunny in Denver today.” Climate pertains to the prevailing atmospheric conditions over a region. When someone asks, “I’m moving to Colorado. What’s the climate like in Denver?” what they really want to know is “Denver typically has mild winters and heavy wet snowstorms in the spring.”

Skeptical Science offers a long list of denialist arguments and refutations.

BlueMesaEast-2011
Blue Mesa Reservoir, Gunnison, Colorado. 2011.

2. Fear Mongering

Another tactic used by opponents of climate action is to scare people with hyperbolic costs and tall tales of hoaxes. There’s no shortage of blovating heads on social media and cable news declaring, “the Paris accord will cost millions of jobs!” and “a green economy is a socialist plot to take over the country!” and “there’s a climate-gate conspiracy!”

Keep in mind that these blowhards never provide evidence for their claims. The reality is that the cost of inaction is far greater. We are already paying billions in economic costs from monster hurricanes, alternating drought-flood events that occur out of season, reduced agricultural yields, health problems, increased ozone pollution and massive wildfires that have been aggravated by warming. Massive spring flooding followed by extreme heat has severely compromised crops in the midwest. A recent study concluded that if nothing is done to alter our emissions, we will spend so much money as to cause the the US economy to shrink. And if there really is a climate-gate, what explains the Pentagon’s acceptance of global warming?

BlueMesaEast-2018
Blue Mesa Reservoir in 2018 after a multi year drought. Climatologists say that unless emissions are reduced, this – aridification – will become the “new normal” for Colorado and the western US.

3. Doomism

Just as radical as the Denialists and Fear Mongers, the Doomists predict all is going to hell. They have already thrown in the towel, stating that we face full extinction within a decade and there’s nothing we can do about it, that the folks at Extinction Rebellion are lying, and that people should retreat and live as if the earth is in hospice.

The prominent climatologist Michael Mann (who coined the term “doomism”) along with the majority of climate scientists state that doomism is unsupported by the existing evidence. In this July 26 2019 interview, yes, under a business-as-usual scenario, extreme weather today will become normal in the future, but the good news is we still have time to act.

Political Affiliation

Researchers Risa Palm, Gregory B. Lewis and Bo Feng at Georgia State University conducted a study showing that a person’s political identification – Republican or Democrat – had a stronger effect on attitude toward climate change than other factors, including direct experience with natural disasters.

To explain further, people were most likely to believe the opinions from media that supported their pre-existing political beliefs, those corresponding to the political “team” to whom they have pledged loyalty. Contrary information is treated with alarm and suspicion. Thus, conservatives are more likely to adopt the denialist positions on Fox News, and liberals more likely to adopt views ranging from mitigation and conservation aired by MSNBC and CNN to doomist perspectives on YouTube.

This is sadly unsurprising. Just about everything – even food – is politicized. We live in a time of political tribes and “fake news.” But the question of sustainability should never have become a political football. This is a scientific issue, a human problem. We are talking about lives, about life itself, about geology, biology and chemistry. Scientific truth doesn’t change because of politics.

Prioritization

Action on climate change requires sensible policies and level-headed thinking, not hot headed panic and divisive rhetoric. What the scientists are saying is that we need to prioritize a response consisting of cessation of harmful activities and restoration of the environment. The one way to do this is to take an analytical look at the reality, and make sustainability a primary component of daily life. Every decision and act takes into account environmental impact. Additionally, we need to pressure our elected officials to take substantive action on climate change. Prioritization has both individual and political components. We can buy economical cars, recycle more, and install solar, but we cannot stop corporate pollution without political action.

Prioritization means educating ourselves, our colleagues, and communities, and reorganizing processes and procedures that include sustainability as a fundamental component, not a 10% effort at the end of the day. Prioritization builds environmental sustainability into identity. Take for example, the mission statement of Tenkara USA: “we believe that as more people take up fly-fishing, the more closely they will connect with their environment and help take care of it.” Connecting people with the environment is strongly recommended by the experts interviewed in both Dahr Jamail’s book The End Of Ice and Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction.

One way to achieve prioritization is to create an environmentalist trope or meme, something that becomes second nature in a manner similar to way that “apple pie” and “freedom” conjures pride in Americans. The usability industry has taken a leading role in this effort by developing new techniques under the rubric “Sustainable UX.” User research and development firms have been successful making strong business cases for sustainability because it is now a value held in common by its practitioners.

In the past, our best achievements have proceeded from thinking and language that is prudent, wise, and mature. Sadly, we have a real shortage of this discourse in politics today, and that makes it difficult to solve common problems. We succeed when we approach problems realistically, use sound reasoning rooted in scientifically verifiable evidence (not ready-made truths), cultivate mutual respect and collaboration among stakeholders, and put forth practical (not ideological) approaches toward solutions. Denial, fear mongering, and/or doomist responses compromise success.

We have done this sort of thing before: we have set aside our ideological differences to meet large confounding problems with both composure and clarity. Recall Gene Krantz in the film Apollo 13. When the space capsule lost control, Krantz (played by Ed Harris) advised his team not to panic or despair, but to “work the problem”.

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