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.
“Scientific knowledge is never socially or politically inert,” Hoffman writes, “particularly when it prompts changes in people’s beliefs or actions.” Indeed, we see that even today when there is a broad scientific and cultural consensus on the potential mortal harm of cigarette smoke, an estimated 42 million Americans smoke, 16 million live with cigarette-related disease, and cigarettes still account for around 20% of US deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
A social consensus can be difficult to achieve in the face of a scientific one because individuals filter science news through their pre-existing beliefs, which are in turn influenced by their group values. This can be clearly seen in climate change polling, which breaks down predominantly along party lines.
Hoffman explains that disbelief of climate change is exacerbated by distrust of the typical messengers (environmentalists, Democrats, scientists), the process of scientific research (which most people do not understand), and the solutions (regulation, renewables).
Further, when a scientific consensus exists but the solutions pose a threat to the economic status quo (e.g. acid rain, tobacco, ozone hole, climate change), those opposed to change often work to discredit the science and create doubt in the minds of the undecided. Merchants of Doubt, a book by Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University and the basis of a current documentary film, explores the history of such disinformation campaigns.
Recognizing that the messenger can be as important as the message, the C2ES (then Pew Center) Business Environmental Leadership Council was formed in 1998 in part as progressive corporate alternative to the Global Climate Coalition, a group of companies that actively funded a campaign to question the science of climate change and thus the need for action. Ten years later, more than 90 organizations, including 75+ business (and some former members of the Global Climate Coalition), joined an ad campaign led in part by C2ES to support climate and clean energy legislation.
So times do change.
Yet it is also important to remember that even if and when a social consensus is reached, changes in human behavior can still be difficult to achieve, as we saw in the smoking example (and if you subscribe to the notion that the global economy is “addicted” to fossil fuels, perhaps the metaphor is even stronger). This example also suggests that even if people are able to draw a connection between climate change and their personal experience – even their own health – getting them to act will remain a challenge.
Recently, we’ve seen some hopeful developments. Several climate change related amendments received bipartisan support in the Senate earlier this year, and companies and governments alike are making climate commitments leading up to the Paris climate talks in December.
In the end, as Hoffman says, talking about solutions can be most productive. Sure enough, my climate skeptical in-law is paradoxically a fanatic about being energy efficient at home – something he and I can agree on. And finding common ground helps to continue the conversation.
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.|
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:
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.
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.
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.
Contact: Laura Rehrmann, firstname.lastname@example.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.
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.
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.
Weather vs. Climate
Weather refers to the state of the atmosphere over several minutes up to several days. It includes lots of things that should be familiar - temperature, humidity, rain, snow, wind speeds, or wind direction. Climate refers to the long-term average (and other statistics) of weather measured over long periods of time (at least several decades).
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.
The Greenhouse Effect and Climate Change
The picture below shows the greenhouse effect. It is a natural process that warms the planet. Light from the sun passes through the atmosphere and is absorbed by the Earth's surface, warming it. Greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, act like a blanket, trapping heat near the surface and raising the temperature.
Human activities are increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This traps more heat. In other words, as we add more greenhouse gases, we thicken the blanket that traps heat near the surface. This process is referred to as the human-induced greenhouse effect.
Greenhouse gases stay in the atmosphere for a long time. Although plants and the ocean absorb carbon dioxide, they can’t keep up with all the extra carbon dioxide that people have been putting into the atmosphere. So the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been increasing over time.
Source: National Park Service
Where do greenhouse gases come from?
Up until about 150 years ago, human activity did not produce many greenhouse gases. That changed as many important inventions and industrial innovations, like the widespread use of electricity and cars, transformed the way we live.
These inventions and innovations demand energy. Burning fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas — became an important source of that energy. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Although there are a lot of different greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide is the most important one that is produced by human activities. It is responsible for most of the “thickening of the blanket” that has trapped heat near the surface in recent decades.
Today in the United States, electricity generation is the largest source of carbon dioxide. It is responsible for nearly 40 percent of emissions. Transportation -- cars, trucks, trains, boats and airplanes – contributes a little more than 30 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. The rest come from industry, such as factories that make products we use, and from energy we use in our homes and businesses.
The Earth is warming. Thirteen of the 14 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2000. If we keep releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, it will continue to warm. This warming brings an increased risk of climate impacts that include:
Heat waves. Heat waves are long periods of time with above-normal temperatures. As the Earth warms, more areas will be at risk for extreme heat waves. Learn more about the link between climate change and extreme heat.
Heavy Precipitation. Heavy downpours are becoming more common in many locations. Learn more about the link between heavy precipitation and climate change.
Sea Level Rise. Sea level has risen about 8 inches in the last century, making coastal storms more damaging. Scientists believe sea levels in the United States could rise 1 to 4 feet in the 21st century, and could be even higher if glaciers in Greenland or Antarctica melt especially quickly.
Threats to habitats and animals. As temperatures warm, many plants and animals have been migrating to higher elevations or toward higher latitudes. Some animals may have difficulty moving to or adapting to new habitats.
Ocean acidification. Extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans, making them more acidic. This can make it difficult for corals and microorganisms that form shells to survive.
Arctic melting. Arctic temperatures are increasing at about twice the rate of the rest of the world. Because of this, the amount of ice that covers the Arctic Ocean during the summer has been shrinking.
Wildfires. These are large fires that burn vast amounts of forests and brush. When they are not controlled, wildfires can destroy homes and be deadly. The number of large wildfires and the length of the wildfire season have been increasing in recent decades. Find out how climate change will worsen wildfire conditions.
Drought. Global warming will increase the risk of drought in some regions. Also, warmer temperatures can increase water demand and evaporation, stressing water supplies. Learn about the links between climate change and drought.
These impacts are already happening in many places around the world and will likely grow worse over time as warming continues.
There are two things we need to do:
The first is to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change. We need to find ways to make energy that produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions. We also need to make those energy sources as inexpensive and easy to use as fossil fuels.
One way to reduce emissions is by using less energy, or using energy more efficiently. We can drive cars that use less gasoline or run on electricity or other alternative fuels. We can also use less energy in our homes, offices, and schools. Everyone can play a part in becoming more efficient, including government, businesses, and people like you. We'll talk about some things you can do to use less energy in the next section.
The second is to prepare for life in a changing climate. We need to make sure our buildings, roads, businesses and all the services they use can withstand the climate changes that we can’t avoid.
What can you do to help?
There are lot of things you can do to save energy and help stop global warming, like turning off the lights when you leave a room, taking shorter showers, and recycling. Now that you have some examples, you might be able think of your own ideas! Our Make an Impact program has a list of more things kids can do.