Human inﬂuence on the climate system is clear, and recent human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems. Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen...
Humans can't wait another four years before we start dealing with climate change and the economic opportunity that goes along with it. So, whoever becomes the next U.S. president -- Democrat or Republican -- has to take action or be held accountable.
While things are likely to cool down as El Nino chills out this year and next, the world nevertheless and once again experienced record heat in June and record heat for the year so far.
NOAA's headline from Tuesday says it all: "June marks 14 consecutive months of record heat for the globe; Average sea surface temperature was also record high." Let's not forget record high carbon levels in the atmosphere, which have been bouncing over the critical level of 400 parts per million for the first time in millions of years.
Basically, we are fast approaching the moment when any delay in dealing with CO2 emissions, let alone public denials of the science, are criminal negligence and economic maleficence.
Because, if we do wait four more years before we get a leader of the free world actively pursuing the reduction of CO2 emissions ...
- We are loading more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that will take thousands of years to get back out;
- Planetary warming will get that much more out of control, with all the consequent sea level rise, droughts, mega-storms and food and water shortages that goes with it;
- The U.S. will lose its economic competitiveness in a world increasingly run on renewable energy,
- And, without leadership from the White House, the recalcitrant denialists will become even more deeply entrenched in their world-ending ideology.
In the face of demonstrative evidence that inaction is destroying lives, the people who must act but don't have to be hauled into court to at the very least defend their inaction. (Note: The experts quoted in this story merely responded to the question "Can we wait four more years?" The assertions of criminality are my own.)
But what's the big deal? What's another four years?
If you measure atmospheric chemistry in parts per million of molecules, explained a leading climate scientist whose quintessential work explores natural variability such as El Nino and how climate change affects those variation, "you find how many of those are carbon dioxide and the answer is 404. The answer four years from now would be 412."
That doesn't seem like a lot, said David Battisti, a University of Washington professor of Atmospheric Sciences and Tamaki Endowed Chair, until you recognize that it can take something like 5,000 years or more for nature to get that carbon back out of the climate system.
"It accumulates, and it takes nature a long time to get it out." he said. "So, for all intents and purposes, it stays in the atmosphere on the timescales of civilizations." Basically, all of human civilization to now is within the time frame it will take to get our atmospheric carbon back down to a level of a cooler planet.
But that's not the only problem. During the time the next president is not taking action, investments in energy generation have to keep on rolling into the current fossil-fuel dependent system. And those investments will keep the coal-fired plants, for instance, up and running for at least another 50 years.
"So, if nothing happens over the next four years," he explained, "you're going to invest in the technology that keeps producing CO2 for half a century, where we could be shifting right now to renewables or nuclear. It'll be slightly warmer because of additional emissions over the next four years. And, basically, we'll be investing in technology that's going to keep emissions high for the next fifty years."
Check out the gallery above for why we simply cannot continue doing that.
Also, since the Earth is coming off of a super-charged El Nino cycle (where the surface temperatures of the Pacific Ocean was hotter and helped cause the record warming we're having), we are probably looking at some part of the next few years being cooler than it has been. So, that will tempt the new president and others into thinking and arguing that global warming has sputtered.
Consequently, the millions of Americans who think climate change is either a hoax or at best a natural phenomenon not caused by humans pumping CO2 into the atmosphere will become even more entrenched in their thinking, and thus kicking our reckoning even farther down the road.
In an recent study, Jack Zhou, a newly minted PhD from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment, explored what happens when staunch deniers are presented with scientific information showing evidence for human-caused climate change.
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"I find," he wrote in RealClimate.org, "that after these individuals are faced with messages that go against their party line on climate change, they further oppose governmental action on the issue, become less willing to take personal action, and, from a psychological perspective, become even surer of their distaste for climate change."
"Overall, simply being exposed to pro-climate action communication appeared to polarize Republicans even further; they became more opposed to governmental action and less likely to take personal action compared to the control group. They also became more certain of their negative opinions on the issue, displaying significantly lower attitudinal ambivalence compared to the control group. What's more, all of these treatment effects doubled to tripled in size for respondents who reported high personal interest in politics, all statistically significant outcomes," Zhou wrote.
I reached out to Zhou and asked him what affect a lackadaisical White House or even one occupied by a denier would have and what would it take to get people to simply look at the scientific community's near unanimous agreement on what's our industrial activity is doing to the planet.
Zhou took the time to write us a mini-essay on the subject, which I am reproducing in full. It's a simple but insightful argument for why the next White House occupant cannot ignore climate change. (His study "Boomerangs versus Javelins: The Impact of Polarization on Climate Change Communication" is also well worth the read.)
One of the most overlooked aspects of climate change is that warming continually progresses if left unchecked. Climate change does not wait for the political process, and the effectiveness of a unit of action, whether mitigation or adaptation, is also projected to decrease as time goes by. All this is to say that there is a window of opportunity to do something meaningful about climate change and the longer we wait, the more risk and expense we invite.
How large or small that window is (i.e., where is the tipping point), I'm not sure.
This sensitivity to time makes for a major political problem as, historically, American politicians have been mostly content to either kick the issue down the road or avoid it altogether. In doing so, we've created nearly three decades of federal inaction and apathy on climate change, and that lack of momentum on the issue is baked into our current political process.
Political polarization on the issue, which has increased dramatically over the past decade, has exacerbated the situation, especially as major figures in the Republican Party have doubled down on climate skepticism. Public opinion on the issue largely reflects this partisan divide, and some research (including my own) shows that members of the American public are unlikely to change their views on climate change. In essence, people are politically dug in at a time when we may not be able to afford much inflexibility.
Part of the reason the issue has failed to take root in the political consciousness is that the U.S. has so far been able to avoid the most visible effects of climate change, even as some small island states have become uninhabitable and increasing freshwater scarcity threatens much of the developing world.
Climate change is just not a very salient or important issue for most Americans, particularly on the right. There have been some attempts to draw Republican attention to climate, for instance the group of South Florida Republican mayors who brought the issue up in that state's presidential primary debate, but these instances are mostly isolated and on the margins of the party discussion.
To get more people on board with climate, particularly on the right, rallying the political leadership may be an important component. We know that source credibility matters a lot when it comes to political communication, perhaps even more than the message itself. However, then we re-enter the discussion of how likely it is for an influential Republican figure to buck the party line and push for climate action when it's not a core issue for their constituency and so much of their history pushes back against that stance.
Another way to galvanize public support might be for climate advocates to piggyback their message onto a highly visible, climate-linked event such as a major storm, flood, or drought. These sorts of focusing events, which draw public attention, may open the door for climate communication and policy.
Absent these considerations, maybe the most conventional way to incentivize climate-friendly behavior is to highlight the benefits of climate action, such as through increased energy efficiency or a move towards sustainable energy sources. These are policies that could potentially improve national security and the economy, as well as provide job and income opportunities.
However, even these "win-win" policies have to fight against decades of political inertia and inaction, so it's easier said than done.
So, yeah, even with leadership doing what's right instead of just what's expedient, getting galvanized support for saving the human world from climate change is going to be tough. But, it's impossible without it.
But, really what's the threat?
"In terms of climate change," said Battisti, "there's not a lot of evidence that the climate is going to lurch abruptly into a whole different regime. But, there is a heck of a lot of evidence that if we keep on going business as usual we will create a different world than the one we grew up in.
"Over the course of our kids' lifetime, it'll be a very different world. (In the NW for example), the Cascades will look extremely different in the winter time. There won't be any snow on Snoqualmie Pass. ... This is in a less-than 50 year time frame, and you can already see the evidence of that. A couple of years ago when Stevens Pass had a really terrible year, well 50 years from now that's going to be a normal year."
And that's going to suck. Without that winter store of water, streams run low and hot, fires are more prevalent and even Puget Sound suffers without fresh, cool water coming in and stirring in up. Just like last summer ....
Jake Ellison can be reached at 206-448-8334 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Jake on Twitter at twitter.com/Jake_News. Also, swing by and *LIKE* his page on Facebook. If Google Plus is your thing, check out our science coverage here.
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