Five Key Ideas about Climate Change Often Missing in Conversation

Many people and groups do a fine job presenting the basics of climate change concisely. Examples include a 6-minute video by writer and activist Bill McKibben, a 4-1/2 minute video by Bill Nye (the science guy), a 7-minute video featuring Paul Higgins of the American Meteorological Society, and short online text from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Public appreciation is due to all who present this complex topic in a manner that allows non-scientists to understand the basics.

Nonetheless, several key ideas seem to be under-emphasized in materials created for the public. While I agree that we should ponder just how alarming messages for the public ought to be, and I agree we need to present messages of hope, at the same time if the public is not sufficiently alarmed then large numbers of citizens will not put pressure on policymakers to act quickly and forcefully.

Specifically, the following five points seem to deserve greater attention, especially among “Alarmed” and “Concerned” members of the public, who can then persuade others:

Climate tipping points pose a grave risk to humanity. Few basic presentations about climate change mention tipping points, moments at which some irreversible event happens. Melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet is an example of a tipping point that scientists believe has occurred, meaning that continued, complete melting of that sheet is irreversible no matter what we do. The most serious, or one of the most serious tipping points about which scientists are concerned is melting of the tundra around the world (e.g., Alaska, Canada, Siberia). Frozen tundra contains large quantities of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas (more powerful than CO2 for over a decade). As tundra melts and releases methane, the atmosphere will warm still more, which will result in melting more tundra, which will further raise temperatures. Once we reach a tipping point, this process will continue until all the methane from tundra around the world is released; we will not be able to stop the process. Should that happen we may warm the earth so much that it becomes a planet inhospitable to most life as we know it, perhaps for thousands of years.

Scientists have so far underestimated the speed of climate change, including tipping points. Any complaint that scientists are too concerned about climate change (“hysteria”) misses the fact that earth has changed more quickly than predicted, not more slowly. Melting of polar ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions is one example of more rapid change than expected. Alarm among American policymakers should be increasing, but instead climate change skeptics and deniers in the U.S. are growing more influential in the Congress.

The timeline for effectively mitigating greenhouse gas emissions is short. Although scientists do not know exactly how quickly additional problems (serious storms, droughts, heat waves, crop loss, unfavorable circulation patterns in the ocean and the atmosphere) will arise as the climate changes, many scientists are becoming more pessimistic that humanity will be able to limit global warming to 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit). If we do not change our business-as-usual habits quickly – in a matter of decades, at most – then average global temperatures may rise 4° C or more by the year 2100. Mankind is now emitting more greenhouse gases each year than ever. The trend is going in the wrong direction, raising the likelihood that we will irreversibly tip more parts of the climate system with catastrophic results.

Combating climate change is an expensive undertaking. Too many people believe that change will cost little or nothing. After all, energy from wind and solar power will be virtually free, right? In fact, mitigation and adaptation will cost the world hundreds of billions or trillions of dollars. In the U.S., we need to build sea walls, levees, and make low-lying buildings less vulnerable to rising seas. We need to improve the electrical grid and build much more renewable energy capacity. New technologies are needed, such as for storing large quantities of energy when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Wealth will need to be redistributed; for example, states heavily dependent on fossil fuels for their revenues (Kentucky, for one) may bargain for reimbursement for economic losses (note that the federal government ran a “Tobacco Buyout” program for farmers to reduce tobacco growing). Already, less developed nations are calling for payments from more developed nations, whose emissions are responsible for almost all of the CO2 added since the industrial revolution. Some experts talk about the need for annual investments of 1%, 2%, or more of the global domestic product to address climate change mitigation and adaptation.

America needs a clear plan to combat climate change. It seems easier to imagine a future America running on clean, renewable energy than it is to describe how the U.S. will transition from the present to that future world. To the best of my knowledge, there is no credible step-by-step plan to wean the U.S. from fossil fuels in a few decades. Setting long-term goals is not enough; we need public plans explaining how to reach those goals.

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