The Urgency of Global Climate Awareness and Action
The headlines read the same each and every time they are put out: “Record High Temperatures,” “Soaring Temperatures,” “Endless Drought,” “Record High Heatwaves,” “Massive Glacier Plunges Into the Sea,” etc. It comes as no surprise that on March 28th, 2016, NASA’S Earth Science News Team published an article with the following title: “2016 Arctic sea ice wintertime extent hits another record low.” Every year, the cap of frozen water in the Arctic Ocean and the neighboring seas melts during the spring and summer months, only to regrow in the winter months. NASA’s news team reports that this year’s winter maximum was the lowest on record at 5.607 million square miles, which is down from the previous year’s 5.612 million square miles. Nasa records that not only have eleven of the world’s hottest years have occurred since 1998, (with 2015 being the warmest,) but that thirteen of the smallest maximum extents for these ice caps have happened in the last thirteen years. In a world that vacillates between focusing on climate and phasing it from the public perspective altogether, is there still time to do anything about our changing climate?
Despite the fact that climate change is accepted by the vast majority of the scientific community, it is still primarily discussed in terms relative to the question of its legitimacy. As a result, this unfortunate discourse also proves true for the discussion regarding the impact of humans on this change. In accordance with NASA and most of the world’s leading scientific organizations, this paper will assume that the scientific consensuses concerning the factuality of climate change and the human acceleration of this change are both correct. In so doing, it stands to reason that the continual questioning of these facts is an insidious squandering of valuable time. This leads one to wonder, “Is it already too late to reverse the effects of climate change?” The attributed stances regarding this particular question are as follows. Chair of the Ecological Society of America, Dr. Robert Goodland attested that it is not too late to reverse the effects of climate change. In order to accept either this claim or it’s diametrically opposed counterpart, one must assume that the ability to reverse the effects of climate change will be yielded through future innovations in science, or through massive cultural reform. Specifically, one who believes that the effects of climate change are yet reversible must be able to demonstrate that we have not yet reached a “point of no return,” or perhaps even support the claim that such a point does not even exist, and they must show that it is indeed possible to reverse the effects of climate change. The late Goodland posited that, “In fact, there is documented potential for agricultural change to bring atmospheric carbon to pre-industrial revolution levels within five years” (7). Conversely, former top climatologist at NASA, Dr. James Hansen heavily implies that it is indeed too late to reverse the effects of climate change. Again, one making this claim would have to assume that climate change is indeed reversible, but must also be able to demonstrate that there is a carbon/pollutant threshold that cannot be returned from once passed, and that we have in fact passed it. Hansen and a number of other scientists are reluctant to say that the point of no return has been passed, but say that it is conceivable that this is the case, and suggest that irreversible damage has been done and would continue to be done, even if carbon emissions were reduced to zero. Furthermore, Hansen “conclude[s] that the 2 ◦C global warming “guardrail”, affirmed in the Copenhagen Accord (2009), does not provide safety, as such warming would likely yield sea level rise of several meters along with numerous other severely disruptive consequences for human society and ecosystems” (20121). Seeing as to how we have already risen a degree Celsius in temperature, this would put the Earth either on or just past the threshold of no return. Finally, there is a more nuanced position that identifies a failing in the public perception of climate change. This final stance argues that there is not (within reason) any evidence to support the hypothesis that the effects of climate change can be reversed at all. This position takes into account the fact that we do not have technology that can circumvent the conservation of matter, and therefore must assert that we are stuck with what effects we garner from our pollution, even well beyond an eventuality when we stop polluting. For instance, an MIT study published conducted by Doctors John Sterman and Linda Sweeney states that, “GHG emissions are now about twice the rate of GHG removal from the atmosphere. GHG concentrations will therefore continue to rise even if emissions fall, stabilizing only when emissions equal removal” (213). It crucial to note that the study does not say that greenhouse gases and their effects will be reversed, but that they will only be stabilized. Though, rather than acting as a disincentive toward the reduction of carbon emission and other pollutants, this final position magnifies the urgency with which we must work toward reaching zero-emission societies.
The position of Doctors John Sternman and Linda Sweeney is the most reasonable and ethical to hold. There is no evidence-based reasoning that can lead one to believe that humans presently have the power to beneficially alter global weather patterns -whether we have induced them or not- and to suggest otherwise would simply be dishonest. However, it is not too late to stop the trend that we have created, as the climate has not yet been raised beyond levels that would be consistent with reasonable living conditions. If it is correct to assume that the effects of climate change cannot be reversed, then it is imperative that humans process their actions beginning from this intellectual stance, but if the effects of climate change can, in fact, be reversed, then action in accordance with this position would only yield the best possible outcome from which a reversal could begin. And the solutions that one would come to from this view are multiplicitous: an increase in Bill Nye-caliber efforts to raise awareness and to reduce climate change denial, imposing a carbon fee or tax, and increased advocacy on the behalf of the informed are all potential, and necessary, solutions for our impending climate crisis.
However, the first impediment toward popularizing and further enacting any of the aforementioned solutions is the public disagreement regarding the scientific consensus on climate change. The Pew Research Center reports that “only 50% of U.S. adults believe that climate change is mostly man-made, compared to 87% of scientists (Deryugina & Schurchkov 1). Furthermore, in investigating the disparity between the scientific consensus on climate change and the public perception of this scientific consensus, Doctors Tatyana Deryugina and Olga Shurchkov found that,
respondents in the control group believe[d] that only 72% of scientists agree that global warming is a process that is already underway (different from 95%, the percentage of scientists agreeing with the same statement, at p < 0.001), that only 69% of scientists believe that human activities are accelerating global warming (different from 88% at p < 0.001), and that 32% of scientists would say that there is no need for immediate policy decisions (different from 9% at p < 0.001). (6)
Considering the fact that the participants in Dr. Deryugina and Olga Shurchkov’s experiment were a far more educated sample than a group of average U.S. citizens would typically be, it would seem that the prospect of public motivation toward more effective and reasonable climate policy is not a hopeful one. It is most likely that meaningful addendums and revisions to climate policy can only be made with a significant public acknowledgement of climate change, and it would seem that the public currently has trouble even understanding that scientists recognize climate change as a threat.
Ironically, this egregious public failure to recognize even the scientific consensus on global warming, (or to recognize climate change for themselves,) is tacitly supported or engendered by educators and scientists. A national survey of science teachers found that “30 percent of the 1,500 teachers surveyed said they emphasized that recent global warming “is likely due to natural causes,” while 12 percent said they did not emphasize human causes. Half of that 12 percent said they did not discuss any causes at all” (Schwartz A19). As was discussed previously, the scientific consensus is overwhelmingly toward climate change being primarily man-made, and the failure of educators to emphasize the causes of any phenomenon is simply a failure to facilitate understanding. This poor state of climate education is not always stemmed from the teachers, however. Bertha Vazquez, a Miami teacher who teaches about accurate climate science says. “Every year, I get the email from a father who says, ‘This is garbage,’ and why am I teaching this?” (Schwartz A19). This is an unfortunate example of a cyclical problem within an uneducated population. In Bertha Vazquez’ case, a man attempts to dissuade her from teaching her class about climate change.
Additionally, Dr. Larry Luton, professor of government at Eastern Washington University, asserts that “Scientists seem not to be aware of how their belief in such dichotomies as facts/values, science/politics, and technical/political undermines their credibility and their impact” (145). Essentially, Luton sheds light on the fact that scientists (such as those on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) are shirking their political responsibilities by holding the belief that science is purely objective, value-free, and politically neutral. When one considers the misinformation that is being propagated by science educators, as well as the reluctance of scientists to actively engage in political disputes, one can make sense of the error in the public perception of the consensus regarding climate change. It is also clear that the political apathy among scientists and the ignorance among some educators that explain this error, qualify as impediments to progress as well.
It stands, however, that no matter the failure of the public at large to perceive climate change and the scientific consensus thereof, and despite the failure of some educators and scientists to improve this errant perspective, climate change remains an increasingly imminent threat. By running several simulations of an Earth System Model in a Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, environmental physicist, Dr. Thomas L Frölicher recently found that “The GFDL ESM2M model illustratively shows that stopping carbon emissions at 2°C global warming would mean a peak warming of 2.5°C on multicentennial timescales, and an irreversible warming of 2.1°C on multi-millennial time-scales” (1). This means that even in a scenario where carbon emission are completely zeroed out by the time the Earth has been heated by 2 degrees Celsius, the Earth would continue to warm for years after the cessation of carbon emissions, and a portion of that warming would be irreversible. Frölicher concludes in saying, “These new results have important implications for carbon emissions budgets. In fact, allowable carbon emissions for any future (peak) global warming limit, such as the 2°C target, may be signiﬁcantly lower than previously thought” (7). Former NASA climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen has found similarly foreboding climate projections in his research and likewise concludes that “…the 2◦C global warming “guardrail”, aﬃrmed in the Copenhagen Accord (2009), does not provide safety, as such warming would likely yield sea level rise of several meters along with numerous other severely disruptive consequences for human society and ecosystems” (Hansen et. al. 20121). The findings of these experts clearly demonstrate the need for immediate and radical action in the face of climate change.
The challenges that are posed by climate change are particularly difficult to contest, because they go unseen by most of the population. Societal ignorance, irresponsible or uniformed educators, politically-impotent scientists, and the looming threat of climate related consequences, are all hindrances toward progress, but these problems are not yet insurmountable. Those who are educated should not despair and wallow in the thought that nothing can be done. They should instead consider supporting or conceiving of proposed solutions such as those that follow.
In direct regard to the threats that climate change poses, as long as fossil fuels are among the cheapest source of energy carbon emissions will continue to rise. Dr. James Hansen says, “Although a carbon fee is the sine qua non for phasing out emissions, the urgency of slowing emissions also implies other needs including widespread technical cooperation in clean energy technologies” (20121). Hansen believes that advocacy for a fee or a tax on carbon-based fuels is essential in an effort to “begin to phase down fossil fuel CO2 emissions rapidly” (20121). Consequently, one of the most effective ways for fossil fuels to be minimalized is for those who are educated to lobby for such a fee.
Such an imposition will necessitate economically incentivizing alternative forms of energy. Australian politician Penny Wong says, “Credible research, modeling, and scenario planning are needed to demonstrate how investments in renewable energy, low-emissions technologies, and energy efficiency improvements can reduce emissions while maintaining economic growth” (276). Taxing something is effectively an attempt on the behalf of a government to discourage the consumption of a certain good or service, so if a carbon fee were to be imposed, there would have to be energy sources to supplement, and eventually replace, fuels like coal and gasoline, in a way that is profitable. Voters need to start supporting measures that will allow for the optimization of solar, nuclear, and wind power, because that is the only way that these energies might become economically incentivized. As Penny Wong states, “a global response to climate change remains defined as a contest between economic development and the environment” (276). As soon as alternative forms of energy can be optimized so as to be made lucrative, the process of effectively combating climate change can begin.
In order for such policy changes to be made, scientists are going to have to function in a much more political role. Dr. Larry Luton asserts that “in postmodern conditions of post-normal science, neither the public nor public administrators are likely to be satisfied with [scientist’s] assurances and their claims of being above the political fray” (158). Scientists, (such as those on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) simply need to become much more politically oriented. Unfortunately, facts do not always speak for themselves, and sometimes facts need people to speak for them. In order to do this, some scientists will need to stop framing their work as value-free, but this will allow them to more directly influence policy in an educated manner.
Most importantly of all, it is crucial that people continue being educated. More specifically, evolutionary biologist and policy director for the Science Education Center Josh Rosenau states “the evolving nature of climate science means continuing teacher education is essential” because, “If you’re teaching climate change the way you learned it in the 1990s,” when the role of human activities and burning of fossil fuels was less clear, “you’re kind of teaching climate change denialism” (Schwartz A19). It is doubtful that most educators who fail to teach climate science well are neglecting to do so with malicious intent. It is probable that in most cases they too are ignorant to the facts. The continued education of teachers and students on the subject of climate change is crucial for the possibility of progress in the realm of climate policy.
It is important to remember that the public perception of the scientific consensus on climate change is terribly inaccurate, and as a result, so too is the public perception of climate change and the threats that it poses. Perhaps more importantly, one must be continually aware of the fact that policy responses such as a carbon-based fuel tax are urgently needed, because the estimation that a two degree Celsius rise in global temperature can no longer be considered a safe threshold. Finally, one must recall that education is of paramount importance in making policy changes possible. Only through education on the subject of climate change can people become concerned enough to enact change.
Climate change should be of concern to every human, because we all need the planet to maintain suitable living conditions. Most importantly, a societal transition from discussions of climate change’s relevance, to discussions of its imminent repercussions, may be the only thing that can keep our societies from taking carbon/pollutant emissions beyond the point of sustainability. Experts like Dr. James Hansen have given admonishments like the following: “It is also clear that continued high emissions are likely to lock-in continued global energy imbalance, ocean warming, ice sheet disintegration, and large sea level rise, which young people and future generations would not be able to avoid” (20122). If humans wish to avoid the increasingly near consequences of losing our coastal cities to ocean rise, toxifying the air and water, and negatively impacting other species as well, then the time to act and to warn others of the danger is now.
Deryugina, Tatyana, and Shurchkov Olga. “The Effect of Information Provision on Public Consensus about Climate Change.” PLoS ONE 11.4 (2016): 1-14. Print.
Frölicher, Thomas L., and David J. Paynter. “Extending the Relationship Between Global Warming and Cumulative Carbon Emissions to Multi-Millennial Timescales.” Environmental Research Letters 10.7 (2015): 075002. Print.
Hansen, James (et al.) “Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms: Evidence from Paleoclimate Data, Climate Modeling, and Modern Observations that 2◦C Global Warming is Highly Dangerous.” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussions 15.4 (2016): 20061-20121. Print.
Luton, Larry S. ” Climate Scientists and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Evolving Dynamics of a Belief in Political Neutrality.” Administrative Theory & Praxis 37.3 (2015): 144-61. Print.
Schwartz, John. “Science Teachers Lag on Climate Change.” New York Times February 12, 2016, Late Edition (East Coast): A:19. ProQuest. Web. 18 Apr. 2016.
Wong, Penny. “From Copenhagen to Paris: Climate Change and the Limits of Rationality, Multilateralism, and Leadership.” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 21.2 (2015): 268-280. Print.