It is your right and responsibility to know the facts about climate change
Imagine you are planning a hike in the mountains. You coordinate your schedule with friends, arrange time off work, make sure the dog is being looked after, and let the neighbors know. A few days before you are set to leave, one of your friends warns you that the weather forecast is not looking all that great, but you say “those guys are always wrong” and everyone agrees to stick with the plan.
On the day of the hike, you arrive at the base of the trail. The clouds look threatening, but you set out – it is a long hike and you need to get going so that you can get back down the trail before dark. After an hour or two you have gained quite a bit of elevation, the clouds have thickened further, and now there is a bite in the wind. There is an emergency broadcast on the NOAA radio that your friends brought, with warnings of high winds and heavy snow in the mountains. Gathered around the radio, your friends conclude that it is time to head back down. If you do, there is still time to avoid the worst of it, but for reasons not easy to logically explain, you argue the point. Perhaps after all the hard work and planning that went into this trip, you don’t want to let go. Or perhaps you are simply just tired and distracted. But for whatever reason, you argue. You point out how often things don’t turn out as bad as the so-called experts say. Your friends counter that the worsening weather is evidence enough. You search for other points to argue. A shaft of sunlight has managed to poke through one spot in the dark cloud deck and you point this out, saying that things are already improving. If we go higher, or even just around the corner of the trail, it will be better still, you say.
In the face of uncertainty and heavy investment, risks are not easily weighed. Such is the tenor of the climate change “debate,” for just as with the weather forecast, there is always uncertainty, but as the data accumulate, the uncertainty now is with details, not the general point, nor the needed response (1).
Modern society is built upon energy consumption, and changing that is decidedly not easy. There are ways to limit the damage, and perhaps ultimately to benefit from those advances, but there will be some cost. Relative to the threat, it may not seem worth it. Perhaps you are averse to cold, and the climate changes that we expect to see sound like a welcome change. After all, what is the concern if the weather warms by a degree or two?
This is a misunderstanding in at least two ways. First, the global climate changes you hear about are averages, taken all around the world and across all days of the year. This means that the changes you can expect to experience on a given day are much bigger than those seemingly small average numbers. For example, a person living in Wisconsin or northern New England in future decades might expect summers more like those of the deep South (2). The Great Lakes, that seemingly inexhaustible supply of water, has already shown how responsive it is to regional climate changes (3). Based on our scientific understanding, we have every reason to believe that while the average water levels will drop, more importantly, the ups-and-downs around that lowered average will be larger than previously. This means very high levels with accompanying coastline erosion as well as unprecedented low levels with disruptions to shipping, recreational boating, and water intakes for cities, perhaps within just a few years of each other. It is as if your work hours, already too unpredictable to reliably budget, were doubled or halved from one week to the next. Maybe you were promised 40 hour work weeks on average, but what you ended up with was 20 hours one week and 60 hours the next.
Many of the most significant expected climate changes are of this variety – changes in extremes rather than in the day-to-day. Although they happen even now, New England is fortunate to experience few catastrophic hurricanes. The Upper Midwest has tornadoes, but only rarely does it experience an F5 with its appalling damage. But with climate change, it is as if New York City was New Orleans and the Upper Midwestern states found themselves stacked up in Oklahoma (4).
Even more concerning is the realization that the land-fast ice in Greenland is melting faster than anyone first anticipated (5, 6). If all the Greenland ice were to melt, which at one time was dismissed as impossible but now has been shown to have occurred several times in the past, sea levels would rise almost 25 feet, leading to massive flooding of coastal cities worldwide. Not enough is yet understood about this process to make reliable predictions about the extent or rate of sea level rise, but we do know that we can slow the rate of melting by taking action against climate change (7). In 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense released a report identifying future climate change as a national security risk and noting that the impacts of climate change are already observable in vulnerable nations (8).
What to do? Solving any problem starts with self-education, by finding the facts, and taking care to pay attention to sources. It is both your right and given the implications, your responsibility to know those facts, and thus it is critical that there be a collective refusal to allow those facts to be whitewashed or erased [as has happened on some Wisconsin government websites (9)]. It continues with refusing to accept that there is nothing that can be done. Break the problem down into smaller pieces that you can deal with. Work the problem.
Be that friend on the mountain trail, cautious and responsible. Don’t be that angry and insensible person, shouting and shaking your fist at the clouds, arguing to no purpose, and putting everyone at risk.