Tipping Points and Climate Impacts: We care, but when will we care enough?

IIEA24th August 20187min
As the fingerprints of climate change become more evident in our daily lives, our political representatives seem intent upon burying their heads ever-deeper into the sand. But how long can they remain so seemingly oblivious?

By Joseph CurtinSenior Fellow, Climate Change

Despite the contiguous United States recording its hottest May to July on record, at the end of July a plan was launched by federal regulators to freeze federal fuel economy standards for cars and SUVs at 2020 levels. If implemented, it could increase greenhouse gas emissions by more than a billion tonnes of CO2 by 2035—that’s more than the annual emissions of Germany.

The US is not alone in rolling back climate progress—Australia abandoned its (completely insufficient) climate pledge last week, against a backdrop of massive bleaching events in the Great Barrier Reef in 2016 and 2017, and a bushfire season that is striking earlier every year. Many other countries around the world, including Ireland, are falling behind on meeting their pledges to reduce emissions.

As the fingerprints of climate change become more evident in our daily lives, our political representatives seem intent upon burying their heads ever-deeper into the sand. But how long can they remain so seemingly oblivious?

The surface of the Earth is now about 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was in the pre-industrial period, and this has already loaded the weather dice in favour of extremes. In June and July 2018, heat records across Europe, Japan and North Africa, bringing drought, wildfires and disrupted harvests. Even the usually frigid boreal forests of Scandinavia did not escape, with forest fires extending as far north as Lapland, scattering humans and reindeer alike, while extensive fires in Siberia created massive smoke plumes, which satellites tracked traversing the north pole to Greenland and Canada. On August 15, this smoke was even visible to DSCOVR, a satellite hovering about 1 million miles from the surface of the earth.

Death Valley just experienced the hottest month recorded anywhere on the planet, while last month was also the hottest that Californians have ever lived through, leaving downtown Los Angeles sweltering in record minimum night-time temperatures. It’s no coincidence that wildfires then raged across the state, including the largest in Californian history.

Even countries that are considered comparatively “resilient”, like the UK and Ireland, have had wake up calls in the form of summer droughts and winter flooding. The impacts of climate change are no longer confined to seemingly remote global south, such as sub-Saharan Africa or low-lying island states, where the least powerless and most vulnerable populations live.

The rate of warming has already doubled according to NASA, and for under 40s, the temperatures could increase by another 1 degree Celsius inside their lifespan.

Climate change is coming soon, and to a location near you and me. But will experiencing these direct impacts drive greater public awareness, and when, if ever, will this translate into policy action?

This is a hard question to answer. Research by Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, and Nicholas Smith, University of Westminster, offers some intriguing insights. For many Americans, a  decade ago climate change conjured up images of retreating glaciers or calving ice shelves in far distant locations such as Antarctica, and these iconic images shaped the public imagination. Few, by contrast, associated climate change with the health and well-being of their own families or communities.

More recent survey results indicate that Americans are far more likely to associate global warming with the weather they have experienced, and this association is strongest following extreme events. For the researchers, this suggests that the severe weather may already be transforming perceptions.

This research confirms the experience of experts over the past two decades. Reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or NASA, no matter how terrifying, have been insufficient to mobilise an adequate policy response. As a species we appear more receptive to “here and now” messages underpinned by personal experience, and we find it difficult to internalise abstract information.

But now we are beginning to care. An overwhelming majority of Europeans accept the science and the imperative to act, and climate change is also seen as the leading security threat in many countries across the globe. It is notable that as the impacts of climate change become more pronounced, Americans are now more likely than ever to accept there is solid evidence of global warming. In a Quinnipiac University poll conducted on 15 August 2018, 64% of Americans now believe that more needs to be done to tackle climate change. Only 18% thought America was “doing enough” and 10% “doing too much”, which is a record low in both categories (since December 2015).

This shifting perception of climate change may also have an impact on how new scientific reports are received. On 7 August, 2018, for example, leading climate scientists published a report warning that the earth could enter a “hothouse” state, if “positive feedbacks” kick in that amplify the heat-trapping impact of greenhouse gasses, possibly leading to runaway warming.

Climate aficionados were quick to point out that this report offered nothing new—it was more of a summary of existing research, deftly stitched together into a cogent narrative. And yet it made a huge splash, featuring prominently on the likes of BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera. It was even covered impartially by Fox NewsBreitbart, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail – not your typical bastions of balanced climate coverage. The report as downloaded an unprecedented 270,000 times.

Could this be related to the summer heatwave?  Did the scorching weather allow us to close our eyes and imagine what a “hothouse earth” might feel like, and the hellish future that might await?

As we pick over the bones of the most recent climate catastrophe in years to come, be it an inundated city, a devastating heatwave, a punishing drought, or the flood of migrants from an affected region, public opinion will surely reach a tipping point. It’s hard to imagine that this won’t translate into a more hostile reception for those peddling the reassuring myth that everything will be fine, that the science is shady, or that “the climate has always changed”. It will become increasingly untenable for media outlets to seek “balance” by pandering to outright climate sceptics, in the same way that RTE, BBC, CNN and Fox News do not invite flat-earthers to debate astronomers.

Despite four decades of scientific warnings aimed at protecting human well-being, it may be one of the ironies of climate change that we need to feel its sting before we can really fight it. We may therefore be entering a new phase in the debate, opening up opportunities for scientists and climate leaders to engage, connect and communicate with wider audiences.

Citizens across the world seem to care more, but the jury is out in terms of whether this will translate into more ambitious climate action. There is no guarantee that popular preferences would be translated into policy, especially where billions of dollars are spent by vested interests to oppose progress and confuse the public on the science.

As Dr Nicholas Smith, University of Westminster, commented to me by email:

“It remains to be seen [if there will be a policy response], but given the tangibility of weather events compared with some other image associations, it could provide a useful narrative to help engage the public”.

If the wild weather of 2018 is to be a tipping point, it will be because voters choose their politicians more judiciously, and because an “engaged public” applies more direct pressure on their political representatives.