To Bring Urgency, We Need to Shift the Climate Change Debate to the Impacts on the American People

A recent article by John Abraham discusses how the last remaining data set favored by climate deniers (e.g. used heavily by Ted Cruz and de-bunked by retired Rear Admiral David Titley during Senate hearings) now shows a significant temperature increase over the last 20 years, meaning that every major type of temperature data set in the world now confirms the existence of climate change — but that won’t matter in the debate about climate change in the U.S. Why won’t it matter? Because climate change deniers like Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry, and Donald Trump have made it their official calling to doubt the science and the facts and make completely baseless assertions in order to mislead the public. But there is also a much deeper, more immediately solvable reason why we Americans haven’t succeeded in pushing our politicians to take serious action on climate change. It’s because we’re communicating the issue wrongly by focusing way too much on the science.

We are not communicating effectively to the American public, because we have been focusing way too much on the science and the mind-bogglingly large future impacts to our planet — which leads many into a state of despair, cynicism or simply disconnection from the issue. Nowhere is this more clear than a recent Yale Climate Change Communication survey that found that, while the percentage of Americans who understand that climate change is real and human-caused is at an all-time high, “Most Americans think global warming is a relatively distant threat — they are most likely to think that it will harm future generations of people (71%)” and are less likely to think it will harm people in the U.S., their community or members of their extended family outside of the U.S. This is fundamentally wrong, but it is a result of the media’s and activist’s overwhelming focus thus far on the science and future global impacts, e.g. rising sea levels, melting ice, increased droughts — giving people the impression that climate change is a future threat.

If we really want to spark action on climate change we need to focus less on the science and future impacts and more on the reality of climate change as it is affecting the American people right now. It is only when people see the real, tangible and immediate effects of climate change that they will be able to wrap their heads around the problem— and envision solutions to it.

So let me go back to my intro.: The United States is already experiencing massive, widespread storms and flooding linked to climate change. In 2016 and 2017 there were record-breaking floods across the Midwest, South and Northeast, including at least eight 1-in-500 year precipitation events in a little over 12 months and a 1-in-1,000 year (i.e. probability 0.001) storm in Louisiana. The Louisiana storm dumped over 2 feet of rain in about 48 hours, killed 8 people and affected 40,000 homes and businesses. The 2016 flooding in the Midwest caused the deaths of at least ten people, affected 900,000 acres of farmland in Arkansas alone, negatively impacted thousands of homes and businesses and caused an estimated $1 billion in damages. It is clear these floods are causing massive damage and disruption to countless communities across the U.S. This is also exactly in line with climate change science, which says that hotter air holds more moisture and that, combined with increased heat energy in the atmosphere that feeds stronger storms, this leads to more extreme downpours and flooding. An attribution study of the LA storm found that its odds of occurring were increased 40% by climate change. Studies have shown that extreme storms now drop 67% more precipitation in the U.S. Northeast than they did 50 years ago, 31% more in the Midwest and 15% more in the Great Plains (or 700% more in McAllen and 167% more in Houston). So why are our politicians doing nothing to help these communities and refusing to tackle the root cause of these events, i.e. climate change?

Above: A 1-in-1,000 year storm hit Baton Rouge and other parts of LA in August 2016, killing 13 people and destroying or severely damaging some 60,000 homes. Storms like these are a sign of climate change and will likely become much more common as climate change gets worse. Photo by the U.S. Coast Guard (Melissa Leake) and copyrighted under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

In addition, why does it seem like climate scientists and their supporters are still playing defense, trying to swat away an endless barrage of fake news, false assertions and deceptions about climate change? At this point we should really be focused on how to play offense, i.e. how to demand that our politicians tell us what their theory is for what’s causing climate change (i.e. put the pressure on them since they’re responsible for the well-being of Americans), why they are opposing the overwhelming (near 97%) scientific consensus that climate change is almost entirely human-caused and why they are ignoring the destructive impacts of climate change on the American people right now.­

Above: Farmland flooded in Arkansas after the Blackwater River overflowed due to torrential rains in 2008. According to the EPA, 9 of the top 10 years of extreme one-day precipitation have occurred since 1990, which mirrors the recent upward trend in temperatures across the U.S. and the globe. Photo by Samir Valeja and belongs in the public domain.

We need to assert our right to demand answers and to criticize lazy answers rather than merely labeling people as “climate change deniers.” The attempts by our politicians (e.g. Senator Al Franken) and the national media to call out politicians on their climate change denial are starting to get there, but they’re really not going far enough. Part of it is we are still stuck in the debate and the mindset of “climate change denialism vs. acceptance,” and the “ah-ha” moments in news headlines are usually “so-and-so is a climate change denier” — but that was the debate 20 years ago. The debate today should be why are you ignoring the impacts of climate change on the lives of Americans today and why are you opposing the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is nearly 100% human-caused? Shifting the focus of the debate to the impacts on the American people (and making the science secondary) is incredibly important because it is a lot harder for people to deny what is happening to other Americans right now and is being shown on TV or the internet — and this will bring this issue the urgency and the immediacy that it rightly deserves. Lastly, focusing on immediate impacts engages people in a way that the constant flow of headlines on “Melting Antarctic Ice!” and “Future Global Sea Level Rise!” just don’t capture.

We also need to demand answers for the increasingly unexplainable and indefensible position of climate consensus-deniers.

Part of the difficulty is that climate change deniers have moved from the argument that climate change isn’t real to argument that climate change isn’t mostly due to human activities or its effects are so variable and uncertain that we shouldn’t act on it now. Hence most of the words coming out of Scott Pruitt’s and Rick Perry’s mouths these days are about the “continuing debate” and fictional “disagreement” among scientists about the impacts of climate change. This “disagreement” is almost entirely fictional as there is a roughly 97% consensus among scientists that climate change is primarily human-caused and it poses significant threats to our crops, our health, our economies, our biodiversity and numerous other aspects of human society.

Even in their most blatant slip-ups revealing their true denier colors, our politicians are still focusing less on outright climate change denial (i.e. a “hard” stance) and more on sowing disinformation and confusion about the science. In a way, this is a good thing because it means we have pushed climate change deniers to the very core of their argument and strategy. Their goal never has been to convince the majority of Americans that climate change isn’t real. Their goal, as outlined clearly in this presentation by the Union of Concerned Scientists and by many others, is to spread doubt among the American public about the science of climate change in order to stall as much as possible and give their corporate benefactors as much as they want before serious climate action happens and “play time” is over. And so far we have fallen right into their trap because we have focused primarily on the science and future projections, which for most Americans will always be somewhat abstract and is easily “debatable” (if you have no sense of objective truth or scientific inquiry).

There is only one solution to doubt, paranoia and conspiracy thinking: reality. We need to bring home the reality of climate change to Americans as it is happening now in their backyards and across the country, and how the present state of climate extremes (and disasters) doesn’t need to become our new “normal” or be allowed to get worse — if only we take serious, united action as an entire country against climate change.

Our efforts to simply call out climate change deniers as deniers are not enough. It is time to call them out for their tactics (and their irrational beliefs), but more importantly to focus on climate change’s very real impacts on the American people and ask why they are not taking action to help the very people they are in office to protect and serve.

The curtain’s up. Corporate play time’s over. It’s time to hold this administration accountable to act in the interests of the American people and future generations.