Can We Weather Climate Change?
This week as part of our Too Hot to Handle series we look at the barriers stopping climate change conversations from happening.
On October 10, 2018, David Wallace-Wells published a terrifying article in New York Magazine, breaking down the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) “Summary for Policymakers.” After a degree-by-degree analysis of the effects of future global warming, Wallace-Wells concludes that the real message behind the report is that “you now have permission to freak out.” But if scientists have “hit the panic button,” as Wallace-Wells claims, why isn’t anyone panicking?
While scientists researching climate change may understand the gravity of global warming, there are many barriers that prevent this information from reaching the public. For now, we will discuss three major hurdles that negatively affect public perception of climate change and one bridge that could get conversations flowing. It is about time we get society up to speed on our planet’s welfare, because we unfortunately don’t have all the time in the world to fix it.
1 Degree Matters
The IPCC’s “Summary for Policymakers” begins with the statement, “Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels…” In this case, global warming includes the average surface temperature of the planet, so both water and land. In our last episode of “Too Hot to Handle,” we discussed why a 1-degree difference in ocean temperatures is much more significant than it sounds (Missed that post? Find it here). Since the Earth’s surface is mostly water, and the oceans help reduce temperature rises on land, a 1-degree difference in the global average surface temperature is equally important. Understanding the gravity of degree-by-degree differences is a major hurdle we must overcome to combat climate change.
Weather vs. Climate
Another significant barrier twisting perceptions of what’s happening to our planet is a rather simple misconception between ‘weather’ and ‘climate.’ Weather is a short-term description of the day-to-day changes in the atmosphere, such as temperature, wind, and precipitation. Climate is a long-term description of a particular location’s weather, averaged over years and years.
For example, if you live in South Florida, you may describe the summer weather as hot, humid, and rainy. Meanwhile, you would describe the climate as “tropical,” which implies the weather will be warmer and wetter on average than say a “temperate” climate. Simply put, if someone argues that global warming is a conspiracy because they got loads of snow this winter, they are misinterpreting the daily weather they experienced as an indicator of the overall climate of the planet. National Geographic recently posted an article on this exact topic, which you can read here. The unfortunate truth is that a warmer climate overall will lead to more drastic weather conditions on both ends of the hot and cold spectrum.
As previously mentioned, there are many barriers in communicating why climate change is a really big problem, but perhaps one of the most challenging is that of politics. There are current world leaders that outright deny climate change is happening, or at least that humans are causing any harm to the planet. Such influential people wielding this attitude is extremely dangerous, because whether or not the public “believes in” global warming is not going to stop its undeniable effects.
So, if this whole global warming thing is such a big deal, where’s all the panic? I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that they worry more about the economy than the environment. To put it plainly, money talks. So if you want to get people talking about climate change, you’ve got to talk money. To tie all of this back to ocean warming, let’s consider just one of the many ramifications of global warming: sea level rise.
If you quote the IPCC’s summary to someone by saying, “Sea level rise will continue beyond 2100 even if global warming is limited to 1.5°C in the 21st century,” you may get no reaction out of them whatsoever. However, translate it to money and the conversation shifts. Instead say something along the lines of “Imagine New York, London, Miami, and Tokyo spending millions of dollars to protect themselves from sea level rise, only for it to continue beyond 2100. How much money do you think it would cost to relocate all of those people are rebuild all of those economies?” The answer? “Billions and billions.”
Can We Weather Climate Change?
This is an undeniably overwhelming topic. However, we are no closer to slowing or mitigating the effects of global warming if millions of people do not understand it or know that it is happening. So with that, I will say that the first step to ‘weathering’ our changing planet is to tell everyone you know about climate change. Use the many examples of ocean warming effects as talking points, but don’t forget that relating it to the economy will hit home for many people. It is not time to give up hope, but if we stand by and do nothing as the world around us changes, then there may come a time when it is too late to hit the panic button at all.