Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Personalizing Climate Impacts

A report released today by the World Bank includes a simple observation about the failure of humanity to act against the dangers of a warming planet. "The slow pace of climate change as well as the delayed, intangible and statistical natures of its risks simply do not move us." Scientists must strike a careful balance between communicating the seriousness of the problems we face, without using scare tactics. How can we bring the future impacts home to the citizens of the world?

A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a young woman at the birthday party of a mutual friend. When she learned that I work at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, she asked, "is climate change real, or is it just a scam to get more funding from the government?" I was floored. I explained that when our parents were our age there was still some uncertainty about the exact causes of global warming. There have always been natural changes in climate caused by a slight wobble in the Earth's orbit around the Sun, leading to ice ages and warm periods that alternate over tens of thousands of years. During the past century the changes have been much faster than ever before, and less than a quarter of the recent warming can be explained by natural cycles. The rest is from heat-trapping gases released by human activities. Whatever we do now, the globe will continue to warm for the next several decades as the Earth slowly absorbs the excesses of earlier generations. We can't blame them, because they didn't know what they were doing. But now we know, and our actions will determine the kind of world our children will live in. I told her that the necessary changes wouldn't be as dramatic as everyone imagines. If we all adopt a lifestyle more like our parents in the 1960's, with smaller houses and one car per family, it would go a long way toward solving the problem. At the same time it will improve our real quality of life, allowing us to spend less time working and commuting with more time for the things that truly matter.

The evidence for climate change is all around us. Here in Colorado, recent warming has expanded the population of parasitic pine beetles that have decimated our national forests. One campground in Rocky Mountain National Park now resembles a clear-cut logging operation, with all of the "beetle kill" removed for the safety of visitors and the surrounding trees that are still healthy. As dramatic as it seems, the connection to climate change is not obvious to the casual observer. The park staff do not distribute pamphlets that explain the cause of the beetle problem, and there are no signs to proclaim "global warming in action". But the Nature Conservancy recently announced a website that tries to convey the impacts of climate change on a local level. Their Climate Wizard is a science-based website that allows anyone to select their state or country and see the temperature and precipitation projections over the next 50 to 100 years from the most recent report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Users can zoom in on their state and then switch between alternate futures with high, medium or low heat-trapping emissions. The default is to view the temperature changes over the next 100 years across the U.S., since the next 50 years are dominated by the emissions of the past. The main lesson is that the future is typically hotter and drier, but some regions are bigger losers than others -- like the area of the U.S. where most of the food is produced.

Although it's hard to get people motivated to make lifestyle changes now that will affect the temperature of the world inhabited by their children and grandchildren, it's helpful to frame it as a moral issue. Many citizens are concerned about passing trillions of dollars in national debt to the future, and climate change is really just another kind of debt. Somebody will eventually have to pay. The sooner we address the problem, the smaller the burden will be for future generations.

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