A Bit of Good News: The Media & Climate Change

This summer has been full of disaster. James Taylor had no idea what was coming when he first sang the words “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain” back in 1970. The wildfires in the West, especially in California and Oregon, have been unprecedented, fueled by a drought that has gripped the region for several years. The floods in July in Germany and Belgium as well as China, where rivers overflowing their banks is not at all uncommon, have been record breaking.

And let’s not forget that it rained in mid-August on the summit of the Greenland ice cap, two miles up, for the first time ever. The event was so unexpected that scientists at the research station there didn’t have a gauge to measure the precipitation, which has always come frozen before.

Louisiana National Guardsmen rescue people in LaPlace, Louisiana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida. Photo by Louisiana National Guard licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The one element missing from Taylor’s classic song was wind. The catastrophic arrival of Hurricane Ida on the coast of Louisiana on August 29 – the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – marked the first time the state had category 4 landfalls in back-to-back hurricane seasons. Intensifying with horrifying rapidity, Ida thrashed southwest Louisiana with 150 mph winds as it crashed ashore. It tied last year’s Hurricane Laura and the Last Island Hurricane of 1856 as the state’s most powerful storm ever.

Ready for some good news? Well, admittedly it’s not a very high bar, but it does appear that media coverage of extreme weather events has improved. Increasingly, news reports are connecting these events with climate change more effectively than in past years. In part this is because their numbers, scale, and intensity have outpaced the predictions of climate scientists and caught them off balance. The resulting dramatic tension makes for a more suspenseful and engaging narrative.

The striking progress in the field of attribution science has also contributed to the better coverage, making it possible to show how these are not isolated occurrences but instead are linked to global warming trends. As the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes, “On a case-by-case basis, scientists can now quantify the contribution of human influences to the magnitude and probability of many extreme events.” This ability to pinpoint the extent to which human-induced climate change amplifies the weather disasters we’re experiencing represents a major breakthrough.

Make no mistake, though, there’s an even more fundamental force at work: the media – at least a large part of it – has finally accepted the scientific consensus on climate change as fact. That may be the biggest change of all

study released two weeks ago underscores this shift. It found that 90% of print media coverage now accurately represents what has become indisputable: human activity is driving global warming. The analysis examined thousands of articles from 2005 to 2019 in 17 major newspapers in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.

As an excellent article in Grist points out, these findings are a sharp departure from the last comparable study in 2004, which concluded that more than half of the articles it surveyed “treated dissenting opinions as equally valid.” In this earlier investigation, researchers looking at articles from 1988 to 2002 discovered that only 35% of them accurately reflected the scientific consensus on climate change. So, at long last, there’s been a significant retreat from the “both sides” approach.

The print media, of course, is just one of the places people find information about climate change, and it’s far from the most popular source. Clearly, television (especially Fox News) and social media – where the majority of people get their news – still have a long way to go.

Even in these arenas, however, the tone has changed. As Max Boykoff, director of the Environmental Studies program at the University of Colorado Boulder and co-author of both studies, observes, “The terrain of climate debates has largely shifted in recent years away from mere denial of human contributions to climate change to a more subtle and ongoing undermining of support for specific policies meant to substantially address climate change.”

In short, the climate disasters will keep coming, bigger and badder than ever, but at least we’ll be getting the facts straight a lot more than previously about how we’ve helped make them happen.

Buckling Roads Ahead

A historic heat wave has the Pacific Northwest caught in its grip. One of the few places that many believed would largely escape the worst of climate change has seen temperatures reach triple digits this past weekend. Portland, Oregon, hit 112 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday, breaking the all-time high of 108 degrees Fahrenheit, which had been set just the day before. Seattle, for the first time since records started being kept in 1897, experienced two consecutive triple-digit days. Despite the Northwest’s reputation for moderate weather, it’s so hot that roads are buckling, even the interstate highways.

Road buckling in Washington State
One of the roads in Washington State buckling in the recent historic heat wave. Twitter: @wspd7pio.

Other areas of the West face even worse conditions. “The Southwest is getting hammered by climate change harder than almost any other part of the country, apart from perhaps coastal cities,” points out Jonathan Overpeck, a climate scientist at the University of Michigan. “And as bad as it might seem today, this is about as good as it’s going to get if we don’t get global warming under control.”

According to a hair-raising report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a draft of which was obtained recently by Agence France-Presse (AFP), the outlook is unrelievedly grim if we don’t change direction immediately. Pulling no punches, the report bluntly declares that “the worst is yet to come.”

Entire societies and ecosystems will begin to come apart under the stress. “Species extinction, more widespread disease, unlivable heat, ecosystem collapse, cities menaced by rising seas – these and other devastating climate impacts are accelerating and bound to become painfully obvious before a child born today turns 30,” according to the AFP account.

The 4000-page IPCC draft report, not scheduled for release until February 2022, constitutes the most comprehensive assessment so far of how climate change is disrupting our world. As have numerous other studies, the IPCC analysis makes clear that those least responsible for climate destabilization are suffering disproportionately. In particular, indigenous communities struggle to preserve their cultural practices, traditions, and livelihoods in the face of rapid global warming that they did little to set off.

Perhaps the most urgent point made in the IPCC report is that current levels of adaptation are not nearly sufficient to meet the moment. Even under an optimistic scenario of two degrees Celsius of warming by mid-century, the projections are startling. Billions of people will endure coastal destruction, drought, famine, wildfire, and extreme poverty.

The IPCC emphasizes that the foreboding picture it paints doesn’t relieve us of the obligation to do everything we can to keep the situation from completely unraveling. It notes that there are still significant steps we can take to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change. But, as the AFP dispatch puts it, “simply swapping a gas guzzler for a Tesla or planting billions of trees to offset business-as-usual isn’t going to cut it.”

“We need transformational change operating on processes and behaviours at all levels: individual, communities, business, institutions and governments,” insists the IPCC report. “We must redefine our way of life and consumption.”

The question, of course, is whether we can pull off this kind of sweeping makeover. What will it take to convince people and their governments that this is the only viable way forward? The answer remains to be seen but, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the question hangs over us, warning of a dire end if we fail to pay attention.

Pointing to past major climate shocks, the IPCC report observes that they upended the environment and wiped out the vast majority of species. “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems,” it cautions. “Humans cannot.”

P.S. It hit 116 Degrees Fahrenheit in Portland, OR yesterday. Three days, three records in a row. Oh, and it was another triple-digit day in Seattle. So that’s the first time that we know of that Seattle had three triple-digit days in a row.

“A Fire Bell in the Night”

In 1820, in a letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson exclaimed that the admission of Missouri as a slave state was like “a fire bell in the night” that threatened the survival of the Union. Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change, issued a report that sounded a similar alarm across the land.

Only a dozen years remain, according to these scientists, before the world spews so much carbon into the atmosphere that it will be impossible to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees C. After that all bets are off and human civilization will be courting catastrophe.

Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker, the consequences will “include, but are not limited to, the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs, the displacement of millions of people by sea-level rise, and a decline in global crop yields.” Only fundamental changes in energy, transportation, agriculture, housing, and infrastructure can head off such a calamity. Even then it is almost certain that vast amounts of carbon dioxide will have to be removed from the atmosphere using technologies that are currently only in the early stages of development.

Two days after the release of the IPCC report, underscoring the urgency of the situation, Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida Panhandle, killing dozens of people and inflicting millions of dollars of property damage. It was the third most intense hurricane to make landfall in the contiguous U.S. in terms of pressure and the fourth strongest hurricane to do so in terms of wind speed.

A harbinger of what’s to come, such storms and other extreme weather events will place ever increasing stress on American society, exacerbating class and racial divisions and heightening inequality and civic instability. The strains on American democracy are already tremendous due to a level of political polarization unprecedented since the coming of the Civil War. Accelerating climate chaos will clearly make things far worse.

“The evidence seems to be mounting,” The Atlantic  observed last week, “that not only will the developing climate regime, if sustained, expose the cracks in the American democratic project, but it will also widen them.” All the more reason, then, to head to the polls on November 6 and vote as if our lives depended on it. Because they do. This time let’s make sure to heed the fire bell in the night.

The Time is Now

The March-April issue of the TCCPI Newsletter highlights the wide ranging work of the Tompkins County government and other members of the TCCPI coalition to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency, and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy. Clearly, it’s an impressive record, one that demonstrates the commitment of our community to meet the central challenge of our time.

Elsewhere in the United States and around the world similar work is going on in thousands of communities. The crucial question, of course, is will it be enough to stave off runaway climate change? Can we make the changes necessary at the required scale and rate to avoid the 2 degrees Celsius increase scientists say will set off climate catastrophe

Open pit coal mine in Western Australia.

The latest assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations group that issues periodic summaries of the ongoing research on climate science, underscores the speed at which we are hurtling toward the point of no return. As the Guardian observes, the new study emphasizes five key points:

  1. Climate change is already posing a serious threat to the world’s food supply and will only get worse, especially in light of projected population growth.
  2. Potential shortages of food and water will become major drivers of future conflicts, undermining human security in every hemisphere.
  3. Climate change is going to intensify existing inequalities and have a disproportionate impact on poor people in both developed and developing nations.
  4. Our current trajectory puts us on course to raise the average global temperature 4 degrees Celsius, ensuring that no one will escape the effects of climate change.
  5. We face a difficult but not hopeless task and can still prevent the worst effects off climate change from occurring.

It’s a sobering picture: the passenger jet on which we are traveling is in a steep dive, we don’t quite know when the craft will begin to come apart because of the stress on its systems and structural integrity, and if we don’t pull out of the dive soon, it will surely crash.

Fortunately, in a follow up report released on Sunday the IPCC finds that the cost of implementing the transformation necessary to avoid the crash would shave only 0.06% off expected annual global economic growth rates of 1.3%-3%. The IPCC analysis does not take into account the environmental and health benefits of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which could very well offset the costs of a sweeping shift to clean energy.

Here’s the rub, though: the longer we wait the more it will cost. In short, the time for a massive mobilization is now.

Off the Climate Cliff?

Right on the heels of the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a startling paper appeared last week in the journal Nature. It was the proverbial train coming down the track, driving home the message that dramatic, life altering global warming is just a few stops away.

According to the study, the new normal for millions of people in a few decades will be hotter than the warmest years between 1860 and 2005 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

“Go back in your life to think about the hottest, most traumatic event you have experienced,” lead scientist Camilo Mora told the New York Times. “What we’re saying is that very soon, that event is going to become the norm.”

The final scene in “Thelma and Louise.”

Analyzing data from 39 different climate models out of 12 countries, the team of scientists from Hawaii and Japan sought to predict the timing of a move to the new climate regime rather than examine the climate at a fixed date such as 2030 or 2050, as most previous studies have done. The paper concludes that the tropics will undergo this extreme shift first, as early as 2029, and by 2047 more than half of the planet will experience average temperatures hotter than anything recorded between 1860 and 2005.

Coming in the midst of the confrontation between President Obama and Congress over the federal budget and debt ceiling, it’s hard not to draw a comparison. In politics, when playing “chicken,” the first rule of game theory is throw the steering wheel out the window. It’s one thing for Republicans and Democrats to pursue this tactic, however, and another thing for the human race to try to pull this stunt on nature.

Even in the most intractable situations, political parties can negotiate with each other and come to some reasonable resolution, but as Bill McKibben has pointed out numerous times, you can’t negotiate with the laws of physics and chemistry. Go ahead and throw the steering wheel out the window; it’s not going to change the outcome one whit. When it comes to climate change, better to acknowledge that reality than drive the car off the cliff.

From “Egosystem Awareness” to “Ecosystem Awareness”

“The future ain’t what it used to be,” Yogi Berra once declared.[i] He wasn’t talking about climate change, but he could’ve been. Eight out of the nine hottest years on record worldwide, including last year, have occurred since 2000. The rate of the Arctic summer melt is accelerating at an astonishing pace and the latest reports now predict that we could have ice free summers in the Arctic as early as 2015.

observatory

The Mauna Loa Observatory

Scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii announced this past May that for the first time in human history the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 400 ppm. The last time carbon dioxide levels were this high was probably in the Pliocene epoch, over three million years ago. To top it off, a paper just published in Nature predicts that by mid-century over half the planet will be experiencing average temperatures equivalent to the hottest days recorded since 1860.[ii]

As bad as this news is, and it is bad, there is some really good news on the clean energy front. According to a recent flurry of studies, we have the ability with existing technology to get 80-100 percent of our power from wind, sun, water, tides, and other renewable sources, and prevent runaway climate change, far worse than what is already locked in, from taking place. A 2011 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, concluded that already existing technologies could, in combination, make up almost 80 percent of our energy supply by 2050 and cut greenhouse gas emissions by a third from business-as-usual projections.[iii] Earlier this year, Stanford and Cornell researchers issued a detailed analysis explaining how wind, water, and solar power could replace all fossil fuels in New York State in an economically viable way if the external health and environmental costs are taken into account.[iv] In both cases, the message is the same: the critical missing components are the policies necessary to drive change in this direction and the political will to implement them.

At another, deeper level, of course, climate destabilization is more than a physical problem to be solved by technology or a policy problem to be solved by politics. It is, in Malcolm Bull’s words, “an ethical problem that necessarily requires moral solutions.”[v] The real question is not so much whether we have the technical ability or the political will to slow down the rate of global warming but whether we have the capacity to expand our moral imagination so that we can grasp the importance of doing so.

Transforming our exploitation of Earth into a relationship that is mutually beneficial must be at the core of this enlarged moral imagination. We need to move from what Otto Scharmer calls “egosystem awareness to ecosystem awareness.” In Scharmer’s words, “we have to open up, let go of the past, and tune in to what we feel is a field of future possibility, something that might be possible, something that we could bring into reality, a future that would be very different from the past.”[vi] Unless we act now to make this shift to “ecosystem awareness,” devoting ourselves to preserve and enhance the life, beauty, and diversity of the planet for future generations, we will become, as Thomas Berry writes, “impoverished in all that makes us human.”[vii]

Notes

A longer version of this post was originally published in Second Nature’s The Implementer newsletter in November 2013.

[i] Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said (New York: Workman Publishing, 1989), pp. 118-19.

[ii] Tia Ghose, “NASA: 2012 Was 9th Hottest Year on Record Worldwide,” Live Science, January 15, 2013. http://www.livescience.com/26277-nasa-2012-ninth-hottest-year.html.; Nafeez Ahmed, “White House Warned on Imminent Arctic Ice Death Spiral,” The Guardian, May 2, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/earth-insight/2013/may/02/white-house-arctic-ice-death-spiral; John Vidal, “Global Carbon Dioxide Levels Set to Pass 400 ppm Milestone,” The Guardian, April 29, 2013. http://www.guardiannews.com/environment/2013/apr/29/global-carbon-dioxide-levels; Andrew Simms, “Why Did the 400 ppm Carbon Milestone Cause Barely a Ripple?” The Guardian, May 30, 2013. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/blog/2013/may/30/carbon-milestone-newspapers; Justin Gillis, “By 2047, Coldest Years May Be Warmer Than Hottest in Past, Scientists Say,” New York Times, October 9, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/10/science/earth/by-2047-coldest-years-will-be-warmer-than-hottest-in-past.html.

[iii] IPCC, Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. Prepared by Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). http://srren.ipcc-wg3.de/report.

[iv] Mark Z. Jacobson, et al., “Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State’s All-Purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water, and Sunlight,” Energy Policy (2013). http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/NewYorkWWSEnPolicy.pdf. See also Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, “A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030,” Scientific American, 301 (November 2009): 38-65. http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/sad1109Jaco5p.indd.pdf; Adam White and Jason Anderson, “Re-energising Europe: Putting the EU on Track for 100% Renewable Energy.” 2013 World Wildlife Fund Report. http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/res_report_final_1.pdf.

[v] Malcolm Bull, “What is the Rational Response?” London Review of Books, vol. 34, no. 10 (May 24, 2012), pp. 3-6. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n10/malcolm-bull/what-is-the-rational-response.

[vi] C. Otto Scharmer, “The Blind Spot of Institutional Leadership: How to Create Deep Innovation through Moving from Egosystem to Ecosystem Awareness,” delivered at the World Economic Forum, September 2010, Tinjan, China. http://www.ottoscharmer.com/docs/articles/2011_BMZ_Forum_Scharmer.pdf.

[vii] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower Books, 2007), pp. 201, 200.

Boiling the Ocean?

As you may be aware, a draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 2013 Summary for Policymakers report was leaked to the press last week. The findings were far from comforting.

As someone who grew up in the Sputnik Era, a time when science and technology became a central focus of national policy, I remain baffled by how such a large segment of the U.S. population could be so firmly committed to climate denialism, ignoring the overwhelming consensus of scientists that global warming is accelerating.

NYC Under Water

But, of course, logic and reason have very little to do with the refusal of many Americans to acknowledge the threat that runaway climate change poses to the health and security of people around the world.

For those who still think science is a valid way of thinking and knowing, there were some real OMG moments contained in the leaked IPCC draft, which of course is still subject to revision. Mother Jones shared what it called “five ‘holy crap’ statements”:

  • We’re headed toward transforming the planet in a way “unprecedented in hundreds to thousands of years.”
  • Ocean acidification is “virtually certain” to increase.
  • Long-term, sea level rise could be 5 to 10 meters (16 to 32 feet).
  • During the last interglacial period, the melting of Greenland alone “very likely” accounted for between 1.4 and 4.3 meters of global sea level rise.
  • Even if we were to immediately halt all greenhouse gas emissions warming would continue for “many centuries.”

Particularly alarming is the finding about ocean acidification. We may not be able to boil the ocean but we sure are changing it. The ocean absorbs over a quarter of the carbon dioxide released each year, much of it the result of human agricultural and industrial activity; after decades of rising carbon dioxide levels, the chemistry of the ocean is clearly beginning to shift.

As Mother Jones observes, ocean acidification “threatens the survival of entire ecosystems from phytoplankton to coral reefs, and from Antarctic systems reliant on sea urchins to many human food webs dependent on everything from oysters to salmon.” In other words, virtually the entire marine food chain is at risk. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or even a post-Sputnik student to realize this could be big trouble.

Creating New Spaces for Connecting in New Ways

As more than one study has determined, we have the means at our disposal to move into a clean energy world in which the power of the wind, sun, water, tides, and other renewable sources is tapped and runaway climate change is averted.  The latest of these reports comes from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which earlier this month released an investigation surveying the already existing technologies that, in combination, could make this happen.  The critical missing components are the necessary policies that would drive change in this direction and the political will to implement them.

I get up every day and do the work that I do because I want to help create the public pressure and culture of collaboration that will make these changes occur.  I get up every day and do the work that I do because I believe each one of us has the responsibility to be a subject in history and not just an object of history.  I get up every day and do the work that I do because there is no silver bullet, no magic wand, that can make the immense problems confronting us go away.  The only thing that will work is to escape from the old myths of independence and self-reliance and embrace the truths of interdependence and mutuality.

Understanding these truths and harnessing the power of the network is at the heart of what makes Second Nature so effective.  The American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) are both products of this approach to change. They are collaborative efforts to create the conditions for the emergence of a new paradigm, one that involves a shift from the mechanistic, atomistic solutions of the industrial age to the organic, interconnected web of the digital age.  They are part of the largest social movement in all human history, what Paul Hawken calls “the blessed unrest.”

The overturning of the old paradigm will only happen if we intentionally and strategically create what Gibrán Rivera refers to as “the spaces for connection.”  Collaboration, inclusivity, and mutual respect make it possible for us to move upstream, where the real solutions are.  As Rivera puts it, “By re-inventing the ways in which we come together we begin to live in the world we are trying to build.”  Second Nature, together with the generous support of the Park Foundation, have provided me with the invaluable space not only for connection but also experimentation, the opportunity to reinvent myself as a social entrepreneur and explore new models of partnership and change such as the Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative (TCCPI).  And for that I will always be grateful.

Note: This post originally appeared in Second Nature’s blog here.