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It’s Real, But I’m Not Worried

The Associated Press reports that two of three Americans now accept that global warming is real and caused by human activity, but only one in three are even “moderately worried” about it. What’s causing this disconnect and what can we do about it?

Until recently, our national argument about human induced global warming and resultant climate change has focused overwhelmingly on whether it is happening. That dispute is being settled, but the public’s understanding of the consequences remains muddled. For instance, the AP article quotes a retiree from Minneapolis who says since she lives in the middle of the country she’ll be “the last one who will be submerged.”

Many people are confused about the extent, timing and even the nature of the challenges we face. They think it is mostly about sea level rise and monster hurricanes, because those changes have gotten the most press. They know this is serious because populations are densest near coastlines and sea level rise will cause worldwide displacement, but they think because they live further inland the impact upon them won’t be as direct. This reflects a failure to view climate as a global system that reaches everywhere and affects everyone, not surprising because people in the U.S. do not tend to view issues systemically.

The left can also suffer from tunnel vision. We understand the differential impact climate change and associated resource depletion will have on poorer people and the third world. We note that those least responsible for the problem will suffer the most. Within the United States activists focus on public health crises caused by air, water and ground pollution, heat waves, and other weather-related disasters that devastate urban ghettoes and impoverished rural areas. This is vital work, but it risks creating the false impression that average-income people are not in harm’s way. We are all in the same sinking boat.

People often fail to grasp the time-frame of climate change. That’s hardly surprising since the models are far from exact. The scientific consensus projects a range between thirty and more than a hundred years before we face globe-spanning catastrophes. It is difficult to worry about something that might not happen for a hundred years. The problem is compounded because even fewer understand that since it takes thirty years for the full impact of the carbon we emit today to be reflected in the world’s climate, we may already be crossing the point of no return. The answer to how much time we have is, unfortunately, little or none.

This leads to what is perhaps most difficult to imagine. We face qualitative rather than quantitative change in the relatively near future. This means that we are approaching the point where positive feedback mechanisms lock in further warming. Once we trigger mechanisms that cause the Amazon rainforest to burn up, and massive amounts of methane contained in permafrost and the methane hydrates of the deep ocean to be released, we will be unable to reverse course. The climate won’t just get nastier; it will become unrecognizable.

How do we convince people, who now accept the reality of global warming, that they must be worried about it? It’s a fine line – teaching that what we face is deadly serious and close at hand without engendering paralytic helplessness. But despite this difficulty, our task now is to move the debate beyond whether climate change is happening, and to focus on the systemic changes necessary to prevent it from destroying our civilization.
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