As Christmas approaches, the mercury here in Washington, D.C., has been flirting with 70 all month. On the day we decorated our Douglas fir, I went for a run in shorts, no shirt. The trees are skeletal, but songbirds still linger in the branches. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised—after all, November was the 333rd consecutive month of above-average global temperatures.
Halfway across the world, in Doha, Qatar, the latest international climate conference, COP18, just wrapped up. Representatives from some 190 countries spent a fortnight trying to lay the groundwork for a post-Kyoto world; the protocol expires at the end of this month, with a new agreement, based on the Durban Platform, set to take shape in 2015. Of course, whether the United States, the only country that failed to ratify Kyoto, will actually sign on to such a treaty is anyone’s guess. In Doha, the consensus among environmental activists and the European press—American coverage has been scant, natch—is that COP18 scarcely lived up to its low expectations.
Now is a good time to check in with what journalist Amy Goodman, writing in The Guardian, calls our “climate cliff.” With all the hand-wringing in Washington over the “fiscal cliff,” which is set to trigger $1.2 trillion in domestic and military spending cuts, it’s easy to forget that that same amount of money—$1.2 trillion—is already being lost each year, worldwide, due to climate change.
A year-end snapshot of the looming crisis, then.
First, awareness of the problem seems to be, inexplicably, on the wane. Jon Miller, of the University of Michigan, using data from the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, a survey that has tracked Gen Xers since 1986, from high school into adulthood, reports that 51 percent of respondents admit to not following climate change closely. When asked to “agree” or “disagree” with scientific statements on a scale of one to ten, a majority of Gen Xers often hedged and went right down the middle, refusing to offer an opinion.
The sad truth, Miller avers, is that many of these adults won’t live long enough to see the consequences of their apathy. Their kids and grandkids will, though. So are Gen X parents more alert to the problem than non-parents? Nope, says Miller. Nine percent of childless respondents qualified as “alarmed,” while just 4 percent of young mothers and fathers did.
Researchers from George Mason University and Yale place the number of “low engagement” Americans even higher, closer to 75 percent. (In previous work, the team has found that while 66 percent of adults believe the planet is getting warmer, just 46 percent attribute it to human activity.) “Most Americans perceive climate change as a problem distant in time and space,” they write this month in Nature Climate Change. Its effects can seem abstract, leading to poor “belief certainty.” In other words, people don’t know what to believe, and even when they do, they don’t trust their own convictions.
The good news is that doubting Thomases can change. According to the researchers, Americans with low engagement are most easily won over through experiential learning: witnessing firsthand Sandy’s devastating storm surge, say, or watching acres of verdant cornfields dry up and turn to dust. What feels real becomes real.
Denizens of the plant kingdom, unlike some of us in the animal kingdom, require rather less convincing. There, the effects of climate change are already widely felt, often in unexpected ways. A team of earth scientists, led by Berkeley’s Holly Maness, recently looked at the pine beetle infestation in British Columbia’s Rocky Mountains. Describing it as “among the largest ecological disturbances” the country has ever faced—forests in the American West, particularly Colorado, have been similarly denuded by the insect—Maness cites “mounting evidence” that the scourge is being helped along by climate change. As the forest warms, outbreaks are becoming more frequent; beetles are spreading faster, and farther.
This creates a dangerous positive feedback loop: in “dieback” areas, evapotranspiration—the loss of water from plants and soil to the atmosphere, which has a cooling effect on the forest—has dropped some 20 percent. The summertime sun is instead heating up the land, increasing surface temperatures as much as one degree Celsius. This doesn’t sounds like much, but it can be enough to stress the trees (bad) and permit more pine beetle eggs to survive over winter (worse). Maness compares the infestation’s climatological effects to those of a forest fire—except that no conflagration has ever claimed so large a swath of wilderness.
As for human communities, even the World Bank has leapt out of the trenches and into the fray, with a report that appeared just ahead of the Doha talks.
“The lack of action on climate change not only risks putting prosperity out of reach of millions of people in the developing world, it threatens to roll back decades of sustainable development,” bank president Jim Yong Kim, formerly of Dartmouth, argues in its pages. We’re racing toward a four-degree Celsius hike in global temperatures, and the fallout might be “devastating”: food supplies disrupted, coastal cities inundated, heat waves across the tropics, killer monsoons in some areas, massive droughts and water wars in others.
“It is my hope that this report shocks us into action,” Kim writes. Twenty years ago, such a stance might have seemed bold, even heroic. But we’ve spent those intervening decades dithering, debating, and denying. To think that a white paper might “shock” the world into action today is delusional at best, and feckless at worst.
That “climate cliff” is just ahead, and we’re taking these curves blind.