If you take nothing else away from this site, take those words with you. Climate change is real, there’s no longer any doubt. And it’s here, its effects are taking hold all over the world and getting worse every year.
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Unfortunately we can’t dive right in to the issue, when so many still refuse to acknowledge the problem. Despite warnings of scientists worldwide and the evidence all around us in the natural world, too many people remain confused about climate change, and even hostile towards the science behind it. So here our conversation diverges for a moment: do you believe in climate change?
If I had time for only an elevator pitch to a climate change skeptic, here’s what I would say:
It. Doesn’t. Matter.
It doesn’t matter if we think humanity is causing climate change. For the sake of argument let’s assume climate change is a hoax, or that we’re just experiencing some kind of natural planetary cycle. If we trust ourselves to read numbers on a thermometer, none of that matters. We know what’s happening: the world is getting hotter. We can attribute it to natural cycles, human activity, or alien death rays…the cause is immaterial. The world is getting hotter.
If we admit that it’s happening, then we must also concede that a hotter planet is a more dangerous planet. A hotter world means more natural disasters, more famine, and more political instability as people are forced to cope with the challenges of extreme weather. If we’re still in agreement, only one question remains: do we want to do something about it, or do we want to sit back and take our chances?
That’s my elevator pitch. If we get this far, if we answer do something, we’re in good shape. There’s still plenty of argument ahead of us, but at least we’re agreed that there’s a threat before us, and that as Americans we’re too strong, too proud, and too smart to succumb to it.
If we got off that elevator and decided to grab a cup of coffee, I would continue by saying:
Humanity is certainly the cause of climate change. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, a byproduct of the millions of tons of fossil fuels we burn every day. Greenhouse gases, by definition, make the planet hotter. The level of denial and disinformation surrounding these simple truths has been astounding over the years. However, like any other lie, the denial has been unable to stand up to scrutiny and real world observation. Today, climate denial remains the playground of only the foolish or the willfully ignorant. The time of denial is over.
Compare climate change to Medicare. Conservatives argue that Medicare is on track to bankrupt the country, and needs to be reformed. I agree. Medicare is broken because it pays out more money than it takes in and rising costs mean it falls into debt faster and faster every year. Eventually we’ll have so much debt the country will be unable to pay its bills and the system will collapse. Climate change works the very same way, except our currency is carbon, not money. We put more carbon in to the atmosphere than the planet can absorb, running up “debt” that causes the planet to get hotter. Like Medicare, climate change also has “rising costs” in the form of melting arctic ice and Siberian tundra, which cause the atmosphere to heat up even faster. And like Medicare, the system will soon collapse…except instead of leaving our children a broken health care system, we’re leaving them a hostile, ruined planet.
If you don’t believe me, believe other conservatives. Not even the standard bearers for climate change denial can do so with a straight face anymore:
- The Koch Brothers – Chemical magnates who are staunch opponents of pollution control and regulatory reform. They have been working behind the scenes for years to fund climate change denial and commissioned a study of climate change in 2011. Even their own scientists couldn’t deny that climate change is real and humans are causing it.
- Richard Muller - Scientist and formerly the world’s most prominent climate denier, Muller has since recanted, stating flatly that climate change is real and that humans are the cause.
Believe these conservatives, believe scientists, or just believe your own eyes. Climate change is real and it’s here…denial is no longer a tenable position. There is simply no where left to stand on this issue.
If our conversation ended and you remained unconvinced, I would love to know your reasons (post in comments below, and I’ll respond). Though I should say: you’re in a lonely place. Climate change denial is dying out quickly in the face of overwhelming evidence and the rapid dissemination of information (thanks, internet!). And we want you with us! The world is going to be a very chaotic place in the years ahead as we come to grips with the effects of climate change. Everyone will be affected…if you live on planet Earth, you can’t sit this one out. Scientists and climate change activists know we can solve the problem, but we can’t do it without you.
It’s great that you’ve come to believe in climate change, and in many ways we are an even more important group than the NOs. I say that because it’s easier to go from ignorance to understanding than it is to go from understanding to action. The world is full of people right now who understand climate change, have heard all the facts, and still shrug and go about their lives as if nothing was different. Understanding climate change is important, but it’s ultimately useless unless it compels you to act. Based our current trajectory, let’s have a glimpse of the future:
In 2050 (37 years away), the earth will be ~9°F hotter than it is right now. This change destabilizes the global climate, and it spirals out of control to a world of barren wastelands, dead oceans, and global extinction. This change is more than humanity can survive. It is the end of human existence.
- In 2035 (23 years from now), droughts, floods, wildfires and mega-storms are the norm. We have reached the tipping point where climate change is now self-reinforcing. No matter what humans do the planet will continue to heat up.
In 2020 (7 years from now), most of the world’s fisheries have collapsed, fresh water is in short supply, and rising costs spark worldwide food riots. All arctic sea ice has melted…Santa packs up and moves to New Jersey.
- Right now, 2012, was the hottest year on record. Colorado had its worst wildfire in history, heat waves knocked out power in the Midwest for two weeks, and 60% of the U.S. is in drought. Worldwide, climate change kills over 300,000 people and costs us upwards of $125 billion each year.
So why aren’t we scared? Why aren’t we motivated? Most of us are thoughtful, rational people and as such believe scientists and mathematicians when they tell us about the traumas that come with climate change. What we have not done, however, is to internalize these traumas. We don’t see them as real and imminent threats to us and those we care about. Humans are good at reacting to immediate, tangible threats such as a man with a gun, or a runaway bus that can’t drop below 50 mph lest it explode. But we respond poorly to future dangers with uncertain outcomes. The phrase I like is “no one starts exercising BEFORE the heart attack.”
So how do we internalize this impending collapse? If the science doesn’t sway us (and for many people it doesn’t, that’s okay), then I implore people to trust their intuition. We may be incredibly advanced beings with our hybrid cars and iPhones, but we are still flesh and blood creatures of Earth, and as such we understand our environment at an intuitive level. When the American Southwest has droughts lasting hundreds of days, it feels strange. When New England has almost no winter as it did last year, it feels bizarre. When Hurricane Sandy hammers the East Coast killing dozens and flooding much of New York City, it feels strange, bizarre, and more than a little bit scary. Our guts are telling us that something is wrong; all we need to do is listen.
Now there is plenty here to be worried about. If you’re worried, that’s a good thing! It means you understand the scale of the problem and are having a natural human response. You can grieve for a future that will be much more perilous than the present we currently enjoy—I certainly have. But there is also hope. Although climate change is a big problem, human beings are natural problem solvers. We can be slow, we can be stupid, but when we feel threatened we act quickly and decisively. So too will it be with climate change, once we have internalized the threat at a cultural level. The only question is whether we will perceive the threat early enough through science and observation, or too late by way of reaction to extreme weather.