Human-caused climate change is no longer a prediction, it’s already happening now. The effects are mostly negative, sometimes even deadly, and they will only get worse for our children and grandchildren. What’s more, they frequently interact with other problems, making each other worse. But there are things we can do slow climate change, as well as to adapt and protect against its effects. What’s more, we can often address multiple problems at once.
All these facts are now fairly well-established, and well-known in the climate science community. They have figured prominently in two working group reports from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in the last two months, and they figured prominently once again in the National Climate Assessment, released by the Obama Administration this week.
But if you think that makes the National Assessment just another climate change report, not much different from the IPCC reports, think again.
Facts do not speak for themselves, nor do facts alone lead to action. And since action is desperately needed if we’re to avoid a future catastrophe few can even imagine, a report that’s significantly more conducive to action stands out like a lighthouse on a dark and treacherous storm-drenched coast. For those aware of the stakes involved—like science journalist and author Chris Mooney—the difference between this report and all the others is like night and day.
“The National Assessment is like a really good piece of science communication, as far as reports go, and it puts the IPCC to shame on communication,” Mooney said, pointing to its “really good visuals,” as well as its clarity of writing and avoidance of confusing jargon. (Mooney wrote one of the best accounts recently about the latest research showing how the public severely misperceives IPCC probabilistic statements—”likely,” “very likely,” “extremely likely,” etc.—which goes right to the heart of distorting their intended message.)
On top of everything in the report’s form and content, the Obama Administration went one step further. In rolling out the report, President Obama did interviews with eight TV meteorologists, while staffers briefed a larger pool of them. The outreach to weathercasters is particularly significant, if somewhat complicated, because weathercasters are often meteorologists, but rarely climatologists, and have often been a source of significant climate misinformation in past.
Forecast the Facts is an organization originally formed as a campaign of 350.org, the League of Conservation Voters and the Citizen Engagement Lab, specifically to counter the spread of misinformation by weathercasters (sample here). I asked their campaign director, Brant Olson, what he thought about this outreach effort.
“There’s a real misalignment between public understanding of climate change and the scientific reality of climate change, and meteorologists are part of that,” Olson said. “Recent surveys of meteorologists have indicated that their belief or disbelief in human cause trying climate change is really an extension of the broader public misunderstanding, and that’s a real problem because meteorologists are among the most trusted messengers of information about climate change.” In fact, only scientists are trusted more, but most of the public has little contact or exposure to scientists.
“So by choosing to partner with meteorologists for the rollout of this report, I think it does reflect some additional care and focused by the Obama administration on winning over the American public of the basic fact of climate change,” Olson continued. “And that’s a relief, because climate change is really been neglected by his administration for almost six years, and so it’s good to see him taking more time and paying more attention.”
We’ll revisit the weatherman issue below, but first let’s focus on the report itself.
“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the main body of the report begins. It then immediately launches into specific, regionally distinctive groups of people who are already feeling the impacts, a hallmark of the manner in which the report masterfully connects the overall problem with everyday lives that people all across the nation can relate to:
Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience. So, too, are coastal planners in Florida, water managers in the arid Southwest, city dwellers from Phoenix to New York, and Native Peoples on tribal lands from Louisiana to Alaska. This National Climate Assessment concludes that the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that impacts are increasing across the country.
Next, it doubles down on the point that this is not just something that experts are telling ordinary Americans. It’s something that everyday people are noticing for themselves:
Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.
And then it turns more menacing:
Other changes are even more dramatic. Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides. Inland cities near large rivers also experience more flooding, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Insurance rates are rising in some vulnerable locations, and insurance is no longer available in others. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snowmelt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the spring, last later into the fall, and burn more acreage. In Arctic Alaska, the summer sea ice that once protected the coasts has receded, and autumn storms now cause more erosion, threatening many communities with relocation.
Okay, it’s not Stephen King. But it’s not putting you to sleep, either. And even if you’re not up for reading the full 841-page report, there’s an 148-page “Highlights” document and a 20-page “Overview”, as well charts, like those highlighted by Lindsay Abrams here at Salon, which provide another avenue for approaching the wealth of information the report has drawn together.
However you approach it, the report is far more accessible and engaging than anything else going under the name of a “climate change report.”
“People who didn’t want there to be any global warming action, and still don’t, are terrified of national assessments,” Mooney said. “It’s actually effective to communicate to people about climate change, where they might think they experience it, which is in their lives in their neighborhoods, in their locality. And it’s actually effective to engage them regionally with what they’re going to have to deal with, which makes them grapple with it.”
As Mooney suggests, many people may be inclined to focus on what the report has to say about their region of the country—the regional chapters average around 25 pages. The headline news on these regional breakdowns lucidly captures how differing impacts regularly manifest in different parts of the country. Reading them, you come to realize how frequently weather stories you hear—whether about storms in the Northeast, or droughts in the Southwest—all fit within the pattern of how our climate is changing.
In the Northeast, “Communities are affected by heat waves, more extreme precipitation events, and coastal flooding due to sea level rise and storm surge,” for example, while in the Southeast and Caribbean, “Decreased water availability, exacerbated by population growth and land-use change, causes increased competition for water. There are increased risks associated with extreme events such as hurricanes.” In the Southwest, “Drought and increased warming foster wildfires and increased competition for scarce water resources for people and ecosystems.” People living in these regions already know these changes are occurring. Rather than going on and on about climate models, ancient climate records and other matters far removed from most people’s experience, the report helps us make sense of things we’re already more or less familiar with.
But each section immediately goes into more detail, combining text, charts, maps, pictures and tables in a rich, but lucid narrative presentation. The sections begin with a set of key messages in bold, which are then repeated and expanded upon as the sections unfold.
For the Northeast, these key messages are:
1. Heat waves, coastal flooding, and river flooding will pose a growing challenge to the region’s environmental, social, and economic systems. This will increase the vulnerability of the region’s residents, especially its most disadvantaged populations.
2. Infrastructure will be increasingly compromised by climate-related hazards, including sea level rise, coastal flooding, and intense precipitation events.
3. Agriculture, fisheries, and ecosystems will be increasingly compromised over the next century by climate change impacts. Farmers can explore new crop options, but these adaptations are not cost- or risk-free. Moreover, adaptive capacity, which varies throughout the region, could be overwhelmed by a changing climate.
4. While a majority of states and a rapidly growing number of municipalities have begun to incorporate the risk of climate change into their planning activities, implementation of adaptation measures is still at early stages.
Laid out like this, the challenge of global warming is still overwhelming in scope—but not so overwhelming that you can’t find a place to start grappling with it—a place that you share with millions of other Americans. One cumulative impact is that it not only fosters a sense of community, but a sense of a community of communities, since large numbers of communities share similar challenges in common, and can learn from and assist one another in the process of meeting the challenges that lie ahead.
Picking up again on Mooney’s train of thought, he continued, “And as soon as you do that [engage people regionally], since people go through the process and realize what’s in store, then they always say, ‘Oh my God! I want to take action. I want the government to do something, I want to adapt – adapt? Are you kidding? You can’t adapt!’” he said, dramatizing the response pattern. “That’s what they do once they finally understand.”
He chose the example of someone living in Florida, facing the reality that “Well, actually, you’re not going to be able to build here, there’s going to be water here.” (“South Florida: Uniquely Vulnerable to Sea Level Rise,” reads one sidebar in the report.) “How do you adapt to that?” Mooney asked. “So then, it’s like, we need the Kyoto protocol–but it wouldn’t be that anymore—we need cap and trade, or we need something, right? That’s what the cognitive process is. And the people who don’t want citizens to go through that process have been on the warpath about these assessments, and rightly so, because from their perspective, this is how you actually get them to care.”
In addition to the chapters devoted to overarching regional breakdowns, there are also chapters devoted to other culturally or geographically regionally similar areas, such as, coastal areas, rural communities, and “urban systems”—all equally powerful ways of situating people in shared communities of interest facing similar challenges..
But there are also chapters devoted to key ways in which climate change impacts–and will increasingly impact—our everyday lives in ways that can be quite intimate and personal: basic concerns such as water, agriculture (hence food), and human health.
These formed one of five features of the report which I thought made it particularly effective, and asked Moony to comment on. The other features—already mentioned—were the identification of dominant regional concerns, the highlighting of climate change impacts already occurring, and the report’s effectiveness as an engagement tool, which Mooney had just commented on, plus one more thing: the focus on extreme events, which are both most noticeable by the public and the primary source of economic damage in the next several decades, as Dr. Michael Hanemann (author of this paper) explained to me for a story I wrote about the California drought.
Mooney agreed that all these features played a role in making the report particularly effective, and then choose to emphasize the point about impacts already felt, picking out the example of the Texas drought of 2011. There is a summer temperature and rainfall chart for Texas, from 1919 to 2012 , in the report showing how extreme that event was. The accompany text says, “The record temperatures and drought during the summer of 2011 (large red dot) represent conditions far outside those that have occurred since the instrumental record began.2 An analysis has shown that the probability of such an event has more than doubled as a result of human-induced climate change.” Elsewhere, the report says that “The heat and drought depleted water resources and contributed to more than $10 billion in direct losses to agriculture alone” in Texas and Oklahoma combined that year.
“They just say it, and there’s no wishy-washiness,” Mooney said. “They just say it…. You suffered, it costs this much, and we are able to make an attribution statement, at least a probabilistic one. It’s very direct, it’s very user-friendly, and that’s only one of the examples, but it’s one that they repeatedly come back to, so they’re doing everything they can to make it hit home. I don’t know how much more you can do.”
Well, there was at least one more thing. The weathercasters. Their role has been troubling in the past, for a complicated dynamic of interacting reasons, which were explored in detail in a fascinating 2010 analysis by Charles Homans for the Columbia Journalism Review. Although it’s only part of the whole picture, the contrast between weathercasters’ short-term focus and the long-term time horizon of climate science is relatively easy to explain:
Meteorologists live in the short term, the day-to-day forecast. It’s an incredibly hard thing to predict accurately, even with the best models and data; tiny discrepancies matter enormously, and can pile up quickly into giant errors. Given this level of uncertainty in their own work, meteorologist looking at long-range climate questions are predisposed to see a system doomed to terminal unpredictability. But in fact, the basic question of whether rising greenhouse gas emissions will lead to climate change hinges on mostly simple, and predictable, matters of physics. The short-term variations that throw the weathercasters’ forecasts out of whack barely register at all.
To help close the understanding gap between the short-term and long-term perspective, a number of different institutions had launched projects to educate weathercasters on the basics of climatology at the time Homans wrote his story, and the American Meteorological Association was working on one of its own. But since then, the added pressure brought to bear by Forecast the Facts seems to have played an equally significant role. They certainly have a better sense of what they’ve been up against than most, so their optimistic take on Obama’s outreach to weathercasters was encouraging.
“Climate change is a big, vexing issue and it’s really difficult to wrap your head around it from a global perspective, but when you can boil the impacts of climate change down to what it might look like in our lifetimes and in our communities, I think that really resonates with people,” Olson said. “And, more often than not, that kind of basic information about what the climate is doing in our communities is being transmitted by meteorologists. And so they are vital messengers, and it’s good to see that Obama is essentially challenging the profession, I think, to improve their reporting climate change.”
This is not to say the bad examples of how things have been weren’t still fresh in Olson’s mind. “All too often climate change is either not addressed at all, or when it is addressed, it’s sort of dismissed as ‘Well it’s cold today, I guess global warming isn’t anything we should be worried about,’” he observed. “But it’s a real serious problem that meteorologists are better equipped than just about anybody else to educate the American public about.”
So if anyone needs to read the Climate Assessment, your local weathercaster is at the top of the list.
There was, however, one final thought from Mooney, “if you wanted to be like a ninja communicator”. That would be to get conservative, or Christian evangelical messengers on board. That was something Mooney said he didn’t see, but it might be “happening below the radar,” he said.
“Honestly, global warming deniers are never going to listen to President Obama. Some meteorologists who might otherwise be global warming deniers might, because they are flattered that they got an interview with the President,” he said. “But what you really needed was conservatives and Christians…. If you find those kind of voices, and are actually being networked and mobilized, etc. – which they might well be, and I just don’t know it – then you have an even greater chance of success. So I think that’s sort of the next step.
One thing is certain: there is, at last, an organized learning effort going on to improve climate science communication. The National Climate Assessment itself is proof of that. Now it’s just a question of getting them to take the next step. And then next one. And the next one after that.
Time’s a wasting. We only have one planet.