Beware The Climate Gap
by Chloe Maxmin | Harvard University
After years of denial, the public is finally realizing that climate change is having a serious effect on our lives. The environmental movement and scientific community have succeeded in raising awareness about global warming. But as science continues to move forward, more terrifying and contentious conclusions threaten to rekindle public paralysis and denial. Scientists should not temper what they research, but we need a third force that fills that gap between new science and current public understanding. This force must be able to produce actionable information that is embraced by the public and has credibility with scientists.
The scientific community waited decades for public opinion to catch up to its findings. As recently as 2010, 38% of Americans believed that there was disagreement among scientists as to the reality of climate change, while in fact 97% of scientists concurred with global warming. Between 2008 and 2010, the number of Americans who thought that climate change would present a “serious threat” to their lifestyles actually decreased from 40% to 32% while the number of people who thought that they would not feel any effects increased from 58% to 67%. This happened despite ongoing efforts by scientists and activists to raise awareness about climate change and provide platforms for change.
Now a joint report from Yale and George Mason University indicates an important shift. It suggests that public opinion is shifting towards the scientific consensus that climate change is affecting our safety and well-being. The report focuses on the link between climate change and extreme weather. Over 60% of Americans somewhat or strongly agree that the 2011 droughts in Texas and Oklahoma, the 2011 Mississippi River floods, and record snowfalls in 2010 and 2011 were more extreme because of climate change. Over 70% somewhat or strongly agree that record high temperatures for summer and winter in 2011 were worsened by climate change. People are feeling the effects of global warming, and they are realizing that climatic shifts are real and threatening. This is what scientists have been waiting for: a public audience that will accept and understand the facts.
But recent scientific reports are likely to widen the gap between scientific and public opinion. A recent report from Nature Journal comes to a sobering conclusion: “localized ecological systems are know to shift abruptly and irreversibly…the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale critical transition as a result of human influence.” What does this mean? The global system is reaching a point of no return. The last time this happened was the most recent glacial period. Changes will be exacerbated by a rapidly increasing population and pressure on natural resources.
Another article in Scientific American entitled “Climate Armageddon: How the World’s Weather Could Quickly Run Amok” further elaborates on the ideas from the Nature report. The climate system is on the verge of a tipping point. There are various regional climate triggers that could set off a global chain of environmental disasters. The Indian monsoon, ice at the North Pole, glaciers in Greenland, the Amazon rainforest: these are environmental necessities that keep the planet in balance. A shift in the frequency of the monsoon or the number of days that the North Pole is ice-free can lead to irreparable effects.
Science is developing and fleshing out a more complete picture of climate change and its consequences. This is crucial. We need to understand the seriousness of global warming. But the public is just coming to a point where they accept that climate change is a fact that is affecting their lives. Now they’re supposed to go further and believe that we are near the point of no return?
Climate change news cannot have maximum social impact without providing ways for people to act. The world is approaching a climatic tipping point. What can I, a humble inhabitant of Earth, do to stop that? Will recycling really do anything? Yes. Each person can take responsibility for their actions and behaviors. Together, our collective changes will make a difference. Will a green economy make a difference? Yes. We need an economy that provides easy and affordable opportunities for people to be eco-friendly. Local healthy food should be accessible to everyone. Renewable energy needs to be subsidized so that businesses and residences can lower their carbon footprint. We can end fossil fuel subsidies to an industry that destroys our health and well-being. New infrastructures are needed so that people can charge electric or hydrogen vehicles on the road. These changes are part of global societal shift towards coexistence between people and planet.
The environmental movement urgently needs to build its capabilities to engage constructively with current public awareness. With this approach, we may be able to move our society toward green lifestyles and policies. 350.org has exemplified this message by engaging its members to sign petitions, Tweet, Facebook, and call their representatives, thereby catalyzing a large national movement. One example is their recent Twitter campaign, calling on world leaders at the Rio+20 conference to end fossil fuel subsidies. But as a movement we need many more activists working effectively in this crucial space that mediates between science and the public.
Science will progress and evolve. But the gap between scientific and public knowledge cannot widen. Our nation has reached a moment when the majority of citizens realize the dangers of climate change. They have seen their homes destroyed and their lives threatened. Now people need opportunities for action, to make a difference and do their best to mitigate future disaster. That is what the environmental movement must address if it is to play a vital role in the life of our world.Chloe Maxmin, a Sophomore, at Harvard College, is the founder of the Climate Action Club (CAC) (http://laclimateaction.webs.com) and president of First Here, Then Everywhere (www.firstheretheneverywhere.org). She views her life’s mission as making the climate crisis the defining issue of her generation.