Yeah, the Weather Has Been Weird
People already care about climate change – the trick is getting them to realize it.
Illustration by Justin Metz
For more than 150 years, we’ve known that burning coal, gas, and oil produces carbon dioxide, an important heat-trapping gas. Heat-trapping gases occur naturally in the atmosphere. They keep our planet habitable; without them, it would be a ball of ice. But by digging up and burning massive amounts of carbon, we’re wrapping an extra blanket around our planet, a blanket it doesn’t need. And that’s why the world is warming.
By the 1890s, we knew how much global temperature would increase if we continued to burn fossil fuels. Yes, there’s always more to learn when it comes to understanding this complex planet we live on. But it’s been more than 50 years since U.S. scientists felt the evidence was sufficient to formally warn President Lyndon B. Johnson about the dangers posed by global warming. Climate change isn’t a future problem anymore. It’s happening here and now, but lately everyone seems more interested in shooting the messengers than heeding their warnings.
I’m a climate scientist. When I’m asked about global warming, my answer is unequivocal: It’s real, we’re causing it, and it’s serious. Every week, I receive bile-filled messages — through email, Twitter, Facebook, and even handwritten letters. They accuse me of getting rich off my research, or perpetuating a hoax, or even aiding the Antichrist. Or simply of being stupid, corrupt, or evil (or all three!). There are days when it all seems too much, and I consider quitting. But I can’t, because too much is at stake.
I get these messages because I’m stating the truth about what’s happening to our planet. I’m not committed to this only because I’m a scientist, but because I’m a human. As a child growing up with one foot in a developed country and the other in a developing one, I learned the value of clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, and healthful food to eat. Today, I’m a mother who wants a safe world for her child to grow up in — and everyone else’s as well. I’m a lifelong Christian who believes that we should love others as Christ loved us and care for those who are suffering, their vulnerability exacerbated by a changing climate.
Americans are more deeply divided along political lines than at any time in recent history, and climate change may be one of the most critical casualties of this divide. The United States is an outlier among developed countries: The majority of a political party holds that climate change isn’t a real problem. As a direct result, the No. 1 predictor of what we think about climate science isn’t how much we know about science, but where we fall on the political spectrum. The further to the right we are, the more likely we are to reject it as a hoax.
So it’s no surprise that one of the most frequent questions I’m asked is: “Could you explain the science to my elected representative? If they knew the truth, I’m sure they’d get it.” But the biggest thing I’ve learned during the past 10 years in talking to farmers, Rotary Club members, city planners, and petroleum engineers is that science won’t convince many of those who are in denial. This may sound strange coming from a scientist, but agreeing on the impacts and solutions matters much more than agreeing on the science. Astonishingly, it is often easier to concur with actions that will increase our resilience to current risks and actions that will lead us to the new clean-energy economy than to put faith in scientific facts that are more than a century old.
By following this train of thought, we arrive at a simple yet potentially revolutionary understanding: Getting people to care about a changing climate doesn’t require adopting “new” values. Gone is the burden of inspiring people to “care” about deforestation and melting ice caps. No need to teach them to hug a tree, respect a polar bear (hugging not advisable), or throw themselves into land conservation. Most remarkably, the implication of this new perspective is that imparting urgency and concern is just a matter of showing people how to connect the dots among the issues they already care about, and how those issues are affected by — and in many cases are threatened by — a changing climate.
I’ve seen it work. I’ve watched people’s attitudes change, going from flat denial of global warming to jumping into the fight to prepare for it or even stop it. I’ve seen farmers talk about why they prefer wind turbines to oil pump jacks. Water planners who work for an organization that doesn’t officially acknowledge climate change have asked me for future projections. And all this has happened in the most unlikely of places — the place I call home.