Opinion: It’s time to acknowledge climate change


denali-93006_640There was a time, not many years ago, when global warming was the bailiwick of outspoken environmental weirdos. Most people understandably ignored climate change, calling it a fad.

Not so. Climate change is here to stay, and it’s time we acknowledge it.

Even when acknowledged, many consider it a distant or future problem—not here, not now—as I once did. But this week’s United Nations Climate Summit and the National Climate Assessment earlier this year both underscore climate change’s very real and very present impacts close to home.

Earth’s climate is transforming, and not for the better. (For a 10-sentence introduction, read here.) While change has been gradual, the pattern is clear. So why do some still fail to recognize the issue?

Three questions

One reason climate change continues to encounter so much social resistance is the conflation of what should be three separate, fundamental questions:

1. Is Earth’s climate changing?
2. If so, is it our fault?
3. What do we do about it?

In the scientific and political communities, each question is at a different stage of understanding. The answer to the first question is “Absolutely yes.” The second is “Most likely yes.” The third is “We’re trying to understand, but we don’t know.”

Each question is distinct and needs to be answered on its own terms. Unfortunately the distinction is lost in the social context, where the three issues are muddled by a single question like “What do you think about climate change?” Since the public can’t decipher the ambiguous “lumped” question, I too often get a different set of answers when I ask all three. The first is “I don’t know if it’s real.” The second is “I don’t know if it’s real.” The third is “I don’t know if it’s real.” Who is going to care about a threat that isn’t real?

Public apathy about climate change is diminishing, but too slowly. It persists by confusing the three questions and attributing uncertainty about climate change in general to the first question in particular. We need consensus on the first question—the only one with a definite answer—before we can address the other two.

“Once I understand there’s a real problem,” a friend told me, “then I’ll care about it.”

Hard to imagine?

I’m surprised that even rather educated people can have this attitude. Consider a recent meeting I attended. With several bodies in a small space, the room warms up. People start rolling up their sleeves or fanning themselves. Noticing the heat, someone interrupts the discussion.

“I’m sorry. Is it warm in here, or is it just me?”

“I don’t know,” another says. “Maybe it’s global warming.”

Everyone laughs.

Perhaps they imagine a future Earth completely inhospitable to humans, an infernal wasteland where nothing grows and the air is toxic. They contemplate it for a moment, then quickly dismiss such a world as unlikely, or at least very distant, and move on with the meeting.

I admit that’s an extreme case. But what about the more immediate perils? Rising seas threaten coastal cities, where most of the world’s population is concentrated. Most glaciers are receding. Droughts are taking a toll on food production, water supplies, human health, and ecosystems. Air pollution is a perennial problem right here in Salt Lake City and all along the Wasatch Front, stifling our economy as much as our lungs.

Climate change is already one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. It’s time to get everyone on board.

“We are at a remarkable moment in time,” declared climate economist Nicholas Stern in a TED talk coinciding with the UN summit. “We face over the next two decades . . . fundamental transformations that will determine whether the next 100 years is the best of centuries or the worst of centuries.”

The first step

In National Geographic’s January 2014 issue, Provo resident McKay Jensen commented on the situation with this letter to the editor:

The human race is facing a sort of problem it has never been up against before. Not only are the implications of climate change enormous, but the general public also seems unwilling to look the problem in the eye. Drastic action is going to have to be taken at some point in the future, but without public support governments will have a hard time being able to do anything significant. The first step should be to say, Hey, this is really happening. It is a whole lot easier to take action if everyone agrees there is actually something to take action about.

Climate change is a complicated global problem, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed by facts, opinions, and dire predictions.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s make sure everyone agrees on question one.

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