On Climate Change

This is the first time I’m writing politically, but it’s time to enter the fray. I can no longer in good faith refrain from speaking about this election.

Before I dive in, I recognize that I have a very limited sphere of influence, and there are dozens of articles that speak about the election and the involved issues more eloquently than I ever could. However, I wanted to reach out to you personally, along with other friends and extended family. I’m hopeful that I, a familiar voice, can convince you of the gravity of this election. At the very least, I want you to openly talk about these issues with trustworthy evidence, and at best, I want you to come to the conclusion that you should go vote in November.

What’s the problem?

There are a huge number of angles one could take to approach this election, and all lead to the same conclusion. I hope to touch upon a few from now until Election Day, but I’ll start with what I know best and personally deem to be at least as important as any other issue: climate change.

For context, I studied atmospheric physics as part of my Bachelor’s in Physics at Dayton, and I’ve now spent over two years studying and applying energy and climate policy at the top public affairs school in the country. I believe in humility — especially in complicated subjects such as climate change — and try to practice this in every facet of life.

That said, given my past experiences and the intensity of my studies, I feel comfortable saying this: I am highly qualified to speak on this subject, and I encourage you to hear me out and ask questions, considering the gravity of the situation.

I’m going to come across pretty strong here, which isn’t my style. But you would too if you saw the iceberg ahead yet no one else cared enough to turn the ship around (or even glance toward the horizon for that matter).

I’ve had people ask me “where I stand on the debate of global warming.” Allow me to jump right to the point — there is no debate. I am happy to point you toward an endless supply of scientific literature and more comprehensive reporting on the issue, but I don’t want to get into the technical details here. Instead, I will reference the International Panel on Climate Change: the leading international body of experts on the topic whose task is to critically and objectively review the existing science every few years and release a report of their findings and level of agreement on various issues. To summarize their latest report: global warming and many of its consequences are “virtually certain” (>99% agreement) and it is “extremely likely” (>95% agreement) that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are the dominant cause.

Would you skydive with a faulty parachute?

Again, there is no debate. Healthy skepticism is a good thing, but only to the degree that it encourages you to conduct scientific analysis in an effort to find evidence contrary to the prevailing scientific consensus.

Ignoring climate change because less than a percent of scientists across the world have cast a small degree of doubt on some aspects of the science is the crude equivalent of skydiving after being told that 99% of skydiving experts do not think your parachute will open.

So why do so many people either deny climate change or fail to take any action to address it? Largely because it is the most complicated problem humanity has faced, and certain interest groups have exploited this for personal gain. There are five factors working collectively that make climate change unique.

1. It’s a global problem

Climate change is unique in that it is an inherently global problem. No nation or group of nations can solve it without cooperation from all. This makes it tough for an individual to take any responsibility. Further, there is the major challenge of coordinating action among 195 nation-states with differing interests and priorities. We have made significant progress on this however — see the Paris Agreement of 2015 — but cooperation will continue to be essential far into the future. This is distinctly unlike any other problem in human history.

2. Its impacts will be felt for decades

The consequences of climate change slowly unfold over generations. While we are witnessing serious damages in some parts of the world even today, the most catastrophic impacts are a century or more away. This makes it a tough problem to make a personal priority, since other things threaten you here and now.

However, if we wait until climate change starts affecting us directly, and to a degree we find urgent, unacceptable, and highly threatening, it will be far too late to reverse course. Current-day emissions have a lag effect, often decades-long. In other words, if we stopped polluting today, things would continue to get worse for many years before they got better. Couple this with the fact that some consequences of climate change are irreversible (e.g. destruction of coral communities) and further contribute to the problem (e.g. melting of ice sheets), and action now becomes even more important.

3. Thinking about how to contribute to the solution can be crippling

Due to the magnitude and complexity of climate change, as well as the fact that every little action in our lives seems to contribute to the problem, individuals simply do not know how to respond. Actions that appear to drastically reduce the quality of life of an individual (or merely inconvenience him or her) do not seem to be worth the negligible impact the action would have on the overall climate system.

So what are you to do, aside from trusting (correctly) that the small actions of many add up to have significant global impacts? I will touch on this toward the end of this article.

4. The consequences are risk-based

Because climate change is ultimately an exercise in statistics, some changes may affect you more than they affect someone else, and vice versa. We know it will lead to bad things. We do not know exactly where or when these bad things will happen — although our forecasts are improving by the day. Without policies to fight climate change, some people will die (e.g. from more frequent and intense tropical storms), but you cannot know who will be the victims.

Hurricane Matthew

Compare this to a seat belt law. Without it, some people will certainly die. But it may not be you. It’s not as compelling as taking an action that is certain to save your own life, but it doesn’t mean action shouldn’t be taken at all!

5. There is a great deal of both real and perceived uncertainty.

This gets frequently exploited. Due to a confluence of all of the above factors, it is relatively easy for interested individuals to manufacture doubt that there is a climate problem at all.

When scientists speak of uncertainty with regard to climate change, they refer largely to not knowing exactly how and when certain consequences will play out. They are not arguing over whether climate change is real, is caused by humans, and will have grave repercussions. Yet the fact that there is any uncertainty at all allows actors with an interest in protecting their own assets and profits to obscure the way in which climate science is presented.

As laid out thoroughly by the historical scientists who authored Merchants of Doubt, a small minority of scientists are paid to present findings in such a way as to cast doubt and extend the life of certain businesses. Merchants of Doubt demonstrates this by initially using the example of the Tobacco industry, whose story has been played out nearly to completion. The short version: the industry protected its profit margins for 50 years by providing doubt (through paid-for “scientific” studies) that smoking presented any danger at all. As long as people think that the science is not settled, they will refrain from changing their behavior.

The same is true for the fossil fuel industry — people will still drive if they know that doing so contributes to climate change, but they will drive more (or rather, drive less-efficient vehicles) if they have reason to doubt the consequences of their emissions. To be clear — we still need fossil fuels, and will need them for some time, but we would have come much further as a society in phasing out their use if the general public was not provided with excessive doubt about climate change for the last several decades.

Degrees of perspective

Climate change is often phrased in terms of global warming, with scientists crying out about the dangers of a global temperature rise of 2° Celsius.

While correct, this doesn’t properly frame the consequences — not even close. Three degrees is all that separated us from the last ice age. And a temperature two degrees hotter from today has never been seen in recorded history. The projections of what that would look like are unkind.

What does it look like?

To keep it simple — climate change will make every other problem we face today much worse, and at an accelerating pace.

It will increase the frequency and intensity of storms, droughts, floods, etc. Sea levels will rise and displace communities and entire countries around the world. This translates to hunger, thirst, refugees (and you think there’s a problem now?), and consequently into war, corruption, unthinkable inequality, collapsing economies, and people and nation-states alike trying to protect themselves.

If I must frame it in terms of how comfortable, white, middle-class American families will be affected, think: higher prices, recurring and greater property damage, and a national security problem far worse than the illusions we face today. As the historically-largest and currently second-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, and with refusal to change our path to reduce emissions despite being fully capable of doing so, there will be international resentment toward the U.S., and it will unfortunately be justified.

To be clear, I am sympathetic towards those who know or care little about climate change. The issue is unprecedented in its complexity. The media often presents it as if it is a debate (since debates are more interesting than facts), and you likely have other more immediately pressing day-to-day concerns. I also recognize my privileged position here — I get to study this topic without fear of it affecting my job or job prospects, and I don’t yet face the same issues as most of the working class. But it is precisely this privilege that allows me to focus on the longer-term consequences of climate change — which do not nearly justify the short-term benefits of taking no action — and do everything I can to keep these consequences from unfolding and causing suffering for all. I hate to sound fatalistic, but some issues are deserving of such language.

What can you do?

There is one final point however — as an average citizen, what is one to do about climate change anyways? Turning off lights and recycling are indeed helping (really, please keep doing this). But how else can you help without drastically changing your lifestyle?

Here is where policy enters the equation. Fighting climate change should be easy for you — in fact, it should be the default when making life choices. As one example, using electricity should be good, since it allows you to do things you need and enjoy. When most of this electricity is generated from coal power plants — and huge amounts are lost due to inefficient appliances and households — then its use becomes a problem.

With the proper policies in place, we can transition toward clean, renewable sources of power and save much on our utility bills by living in insulated homes (through cheap, easily attainable retrofits) with efficient appliances (developed and made available through market incentives). How do we achieve this (and several similar examples in transportation, agriculture, and the like)? With policy. Smart policy, informed by science and research, with special attention paid to the impacts they have on everyone, from the rich to the poor.

Your vote matters

This brings me to my conclusion: there is only one candidate whose attention is properly focused on fighting climate change with smart policy, and that is Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump would destroy the progress we have made domestically and internationally. And we have made great progress. Instead, he is opting for a nostalgic return to the dominance of coal — a dream built on sand with tragic consequences for all — and a disregard for environmental regulations that have, by definition, protected human health (and then the environment). Donald also has a complete lack of respect for science in general, which could lead to the implementation of disastrous policies.

I should note that Green Party candidate Jill Stein is also actively pursuing a strong climate agenda. However, there are two primary reasons she should not receive your vote. First, a third party candidate is not going to receive enough votes to be elected president this term. It may be frustrating, but it is a certainty that must be acknowledged. This is not the time for a protest vote. Second, Hillary has the political acumen to get her reasonable, well-designed climate policies passed. Jill likely does not, given her very limited experience in elected office and the infeasible nature of some of her proposed policies.

If you have a concern over any social, economic, or security issue, I promise you the advance of climate change will make it worse. We are at a historic turning point with this election — the difference between incremental progress toward the most challenging global problem we’ve ever faced, and a reversal that risks decades (yes, decades) of clawing tooth and nail just to return to where we are today. I’m no believer in single-issue voting, but if I had to choose one, climate change makes the most sense.

I’ve gone on too long already. Please, ask me any questions you might have. Let’s all discuss our collective future in a civilized manner. And let’s all make the most informed decision we can this November.

Thank you for reading.