Science

How culture shapes the climate change debate

I have an in-law who is, shall we say, rather skeptical about climate change. Any discussion on the topic usually begins with some contrarian science theory that he heard on one of his favorite talk shows (e.g. sun spots, deep ocean magma, urban heat islands), and then devolves from there.

Why do some Americans believe the antithesis of the scientific consensus on issues like climate change?

This topic is explored by Professor Andy Hoffman of the University of Michigan in his new book, How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate. As suggested by the title, Hoffman’s thesis – a distillation of considerable research from social scientists over the past several years – is that the public’s understanding of climate change, like other historically contentious issues such as evolution, acid rain, the ozone hole, and genetically modified food – is as much a cultural issue as a scientific one.

One of the key arguments is that a scientific consensus does not necessarily reflect a “social consensus,” the latter being something that the majority of society would consider to be true.  For instance, the scientific consensus that cigarettes harm human health emerged decades before the social consensus emerged.

Answers to 3 key questions about the hottest year on record

Last year was the warmest globally in the 135 years since records have been kept. That was confirmed today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

What’s significant about one year’s temperature?

What does one record-breaking year say about climate change? Alone, very little, but 2014’s heat did not happen in isolation. It was part of a longer streak of warm years. The last 38 years have been warmer than the 20th century average. All of the top 10 warmest years have occurred since 1998. Taken together, these warm years demonstrate that the Earth’s climate has changed and continues to change. The “warm streak” also provides a strong argument against those who claim global warming somehow stopped in the last 15-20 years. Although it is true that the rate of warming since 1998 was slower than in prior decades, the longer-term picture is unequivocal. The planet is still warming up. And as we’ve discussed previously, the ups and downs that occur over a few years or even a decade should not be used to undermine (or unnecessarily embellish) the reality of the broad warming trend.

Another interesting aspect of 2014 is that the high-temperature mark was broken without much help from El Niño. El Niño events occur when a large area of the tropical Pacific Ocean maintains above-average temperatures for many consecutive months. So, when we have an El Niño, the planet has a good chance of being warm as a whole. El Niños helped make 1998, 2005, and 2010 some of the warmest years in the temperature record. However, in 2014, ocean conditions fell somewhere between neutral and a bona fide El Niño (see NOAA’s recent blog on the state of El Niño).

Global average annual temperatures since 1880, from NOAA and climate.gov. The dark red columns represent the 10 warmest years in the record. 2014 is the warmest year in the record.

Climate progress in 2014 sets the stage for 2015 action

Progress on a multifaceted global challenge like climate change doesn’t happen in one flash of bright light. This can lead to the impression that little is being accomplished, especially when stories highlight areas of disagreement.

Nothing can be further from the truth. In reality, progress is more like the brightening sky before dawn. We saw positive steps in 2014, and they’ll help lay the groundwork for significant climate action in 2015 in the United States and around the world.

In the U.S., we will see the EPA Clean Power Plan finalized and states taking up the challenge to develop innovative policies to reduce harmful carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Allowing governors to do what they do best, innovating at the state level, will be a key achievement of 2015.

Internationally, more countries than ever before will be putting forward new targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions ahead of talks in December in Paris to hammer out a climate pact to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

In the New Year, we will be building on solid progress made in 2014 by governments, businesses, and individuals. Here are 10 examples:

Climate Resilience Toolkit is important resource

Anyone who needs to plan for future risks -- whether a city manager, a state official, or a business leader -- needs good information that’s easy to find and easy to use. The federal government took an important step to help managers plan for the impacts of climate change with the release this month of the Climate Resilience Toolkit.

This new online portal offers a wide range of resources and interactives that consolidate some of the “greatest hits” from federal climate data sets, guidance for resilience planning, and examples of resilience projects.

The toolkit is likely to be especially helpful for communities and businesses in the early stages of resilience planning, or for individuals who want to know more about managing climate risks. I took a spin through the toolkit’s resources and here’s my take on some of its components.

Process

The toolkit promotes a five-step process for building resilience: Identify the Problem, Determine Vulnerabilities, Investigate Options, Evaluate Risks and Costs, and Take Action.


The Climate Resilience Toolkit’s five-step process for building resilience.

Bob Perciasepe's Statement on IPCC Synthesis Report

Statement of Bob Perciasepe
President, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions

November 2, 2014

On the release of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Synthesis Report for the Fifth Assessment:

The IPCC synthesis report delivers a critical message at a critical moment. The core findings aren’t new, but the report makes them clearer than ever, and they are worth underscoring. 

It’s important to be reminded of the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change as the United States works toward its most ambitious steps ever to cut carbon emissions and nations work toward the Paris agreement. 

The core message from the IPCC is the growing urgency of action. We have real opportunities next year to make progress both in the U.S. and globally. The scientists have done their job. Now it’s up to governments to do theirs.

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Contact: Laura Rehrmann, rehrmannl@c2es.org

About C2ES: The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) is an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization promoting strong policy and action to address the twin challenges of energy and climate change. Launched in 2011, C2ES is the successor to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Learn more at www.c2es.org.

Understanding climate change, even if you're not a scientist

A catchphrase has cropped up in discussions about climate change: “I’m not a scientist…”

You hear it from some elected leaders opposed to taking action to reduce climate risks. It’s usually followed by an argument that climate science is too hard to understand or there’s not enough information that climate change is a serious problem.

With this in mind, we’ve revamped our Science and Impacts webpages to ensure we’re providing understandable, up-to-date climate science information so that anyone can connect the choices we make in producing and consuming energy to the risks of climate impacts.

Kids Corner

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The C2ES Kids Corner is designed to help you understand how and why our climate is changing, how climate change affects us, and what people can do to slow climate change and prepare for it.
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The Basics

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C2ES is a source of reliable information about the causes and potential consequences of climate change. The basics page provides an overview of fundamental facts and data and answers to frequently asked questions.
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Tipping points and climate change: Revisiting The Day After Tomorrow

It has been 10 years since the movie The Day After Tomorrow offered a highly embellished vision of a climate “tipping point” in which polar ice sheets melt, shut down the Gulf Stream, and plunge Europe and much of the U.S. into a deep freeze.

While most of The Day After Tomorrow is safely in the realm of science fiction, there is real science to back up concerns that tipping points in the climate system could cause potentially irreversible, and in some cases drastic, changes in our climate.

Figure 1: Potential tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system overlaid with population density. Question marks indicate systems whose status as tipping elements is particularly uncertain. Source: National Climate Assessment 2014.

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