The clarion call to action on climate change will be made by the next generation
Closing the extreme weather generation gap brings climate change reality to the public in a way that no amount of demagoguery can defeat
When it comes to doing something about it, the most intractable climate change problem is grass-roots political support. Without a clear mandate, there can be no substantive legislative progress. It’s a brave politician indeed who supports a course of action pretty much guaranteed to terminate his career. A clear, unequivocal mandate is a must: it’s absence to date is the biggest barrier to meaningful and enduring political action.
The reasons are diverse. Foremost in the democratic nations is the divisive nature of the debate, a crucial issue when those divisions are ideological. Scientists, pundits and activists alike may desire more public support based on scientific evidence, but it seems clear that such evidence doesn’t impinge much on the broader public discourse, one way or another.
After all, as I pointed out recently, we’ve had a literal mountain of reports delivered to our doors – well, screens – all free, all staggeringly comprehensive in both scope and weight, and all from authoritative sources as diverse as the Royal Society, the IPCC, the AAAS and the Pentagon. Such diversity precludes the kind of foolish dismissal the denial community indulges in – their projection that climate change science is coloured by ideological intentions, when denial is founded on nothing else but. (They sure as hell don’t have any science, but as we shall see, they don’t appear to need any).
The mountainous reports may have some influence at institutional levels, but in the public domain I fear that they gain little lasting traction. As the Huffington Post reported recently, “According to the National Science Foundation’s recently released Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, 80% of Americans do not understand what it means to study something scientifically”. Without an understanding of how science works, the public are unlikely to be swayed by its discoveries, beyond a mild frisson over the morning’s first cup of coffee. (Gosh! Ice in that cold place up north is melting, it says here…pass the toast…can’t believe how crap Manchester United are this season…).
Another indicator is the August 2013 poll by The Carbon Brief. They discovered that the much-vaunted ‘hiatus’ in surface warming – an extremely hot topic among those invested in the subject, if you’ll forgive the pun – hadn’t really affected public opinion much at all.
“The story that climate change has stopped over the last 16 years was recalled by just one in 20 people: less than a quarter of the number who thought they recalled a made-up story about China announcing it won’t limit its emissions…Despite the media coverage of the supposed pause, there’s been no significant change in the numbers who think climate change requires action now, and the numbers who don’t”.
So much for the scientific evidence – no matter which way it’s spun. If neither the science nor the activism (on either side of the debate) has much impact on the public at large, what does?
Bridging the Generation Gap
The answer is the weather. As I wrote recently, we believe what we can see out of the window. Farmers in the mid-west believe the fields of parched crops. Arizona and California believe the fires that are starting way to early, and getting way too fierce for the time of year. Britain believes the mopping up needed after the heaviest regional winter rainfall in 248 years. While Scandinavian bears have been waking up early from their annual hibernation because temperatures are unseasonably warm, and Norway experienced ‘freakish’ January wildfires, Australia is recovering from record heatwaves.
These incidents are not isolated: the UK’s Guardian reported last year that “Portugal, China, Hungary, Finland, and Britain, all recorded heatwaves, and the temperature in Death Valley, California hit 129.2F (54.0C), the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth during June. Meanwhile, Shanghai had 24 days with temperatures at or above 35C in July and recorded 40.6C, the highest ever temperature recorded in 140 years of records in the city”.
In fact, as executive secretary of the UN climate secretariat Christina Figueres pointed out in a recent Guardian interview, extreme weather events should no longer be dismissed as one-offs:
“If you take them individually you can say maybe it’s a fluke. The problem is it’s not a fluke and you can’t take them individually. What it’s doing is giving us a pattern of abnormality that’s becoming the norm.”
In a perfect world, perhaps the number of incidents and their frequency might be enough to convince the public that we need to do something about climate change. But as Adam Corner wrote in the Guardian, the recent UK floods did little to catalyse public opinion about climate change mitigation.
“The problem – as ever with the highly polarised issue of climate change – is that the “evidence” of extreme weather can be interpreted in multiple, competing ways”, writes Corner. “Floods have happened before, and will happen again. While the argument that they are made more likely and more severe by climate change is simple enough, it is also vulnerable to sceptical attacks because no single extreme weather event can be conclusively linked to climate change”.
It is understandable that vague, long-term issues – potential threats in the future – don’t impact on us with the immediacy of water coming under the door, fire rushing towards a house, people fainting in the street from heat exhaustion or a field full of dying crops. But when these events take place only occasionally, it is easy to dismiss them, despite the warnings from science that these are exactly the kind of events we’re going to see more of.
Until quite recently, we had to look to history for the frequency of extreme weather, just as we did for more profound changes. It was easy to dismiss extreme weather events as being part of ‘natural variability’. We can read about some old Inuit elder complaining that he’s never seen conditions like last year’s ‘since I was a boy’, but the anecdotal nature of the message is hardly compelling.
What will be more compelling – very much so – is when the changes, the extremes, the instabilities, are no longer inter-generational. The speed at which the climate is destabilising away from the patterns we’ve enjoyed for thousands of years is taking climate science by surprise. In the coming decades, the frequency of extreme events is likely to increase to the point that history is being re-written within the scope of perhaps a couple of generations, maybe even just one.
When we no longer need to read the journals of those long gone to determine the last time the North-West passage was open because the last time was six years ago, that the last dust bowl was during the Great Depression instead of the last decade – that’s when public opinion will change. It will not be science, nor ideology that brings home the reality of the danger we’re in. It will be the simple act by the next generation, doing nothing more scientific than looking out the window, because the danger will no longer be a future threat, but one that’s arrived, one that a single generation can remember all too clearly.
That too is when the demagoguery will have to stop (although stopping now might be a good idea, frankly), because it will no longer be credible to argue that ‘we’ve always had extremes of weather’ – not when the personal experience of a single generation tells us that these extremes are no longer isolated events, and that the climate is now so unstable we can witness the effects and the frequency of them within a single lifetime.
Climate change is here, now. My generation may not believe it: the next generation will have to.
It occurred to me after writing this article that it could be construed as fatalistic; no point in doing anything until such time as the excrement and the fan are in such close proximity, nobody could take climate change denial seriously any more. It is a terrible thing to admit that we have to wait until so much damage is done before we take things seriously – akin to waiting until the entire ground floor of a house in on fire before calling the emergency services, instead of just putting out that pan fire – but the damage is already being done, so there’s no turning back now. The question is this: how much damage do we have to suffer, how much irrevocable destabilisation does it take to convince the complacent, the bored, the disinterested, the ideologues and vested interests?
If there is a purpose to activism right now, it is to bring forward the date when we wake from this environmental nightmare. There will be damage, there will be victims, there will be terrible costs inflicted, much of it on those least able to afford them, but the task at hand now is to wake the world from its dangerous sleepwalk as soon as we can.