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Connecting climate change to everyday life: Guest blogger Christine Shearer

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 1:30 AM GMT on December 31, 2010

I regularly meet new people through this blog. Recently Christine Shearer contacted me to look over some paragraphs in her forthcoming book. Christine is a sociologist working on climate change. As my readers know, I believe that perspectives from many different fields are what we need to move our addressing climate change forward. I asked, and she agreed to write a guest blog.

Connecting climate change to everyday life by Christine Shearer

One of the interesting things, sociologically, about climate change science is just how political it has become. It is not, however, that people merely fall on different sides on the issue, depending upon their views concerning government regulation. In many ways this divide was socially engineered. In their research, sociologists Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap track how those opposed to climate change regulations helped transform growing national understanding and concern over global warming into a “nonproblem”, creating a political climate conducive toward the US Congress rejecting the binding greenhouse gas limits of the Kyoto Protocol. Regulation opponents did this by borrowing tactics from Big Tobacco: demanding certainty as the only acceptable standard for action, while simultaneously funding research to deliberately create uncertainty. Historian Naomi Oreskes has traced how many of the same scientists that questioned the science on smoking also went on to question acid rain, ozone depletion, and climate change. These efforts are aided by the media, which too often confuse balanced journalism with presenting various views on an issue, ignoring the weight of scientific consensus.

After Kyoto, public perception of global warming as a problem shrank among U.S. Republicans, marking the beginning of a growing partisan divide concerning global warming and the need for action. Conservatives are arguably exposed to more media sources that question climate change, such as the recently leaked memo of a Fox News editor ordering its journalists to always state that climate change data has been called into question when discussing the topic. Gallup surveys also suggest there has been a measurable decrease since Kyoto in just how severe a problem much of the U.S. public – Republicans and Democrats – regard climate change.

This has been the brilliance of the climate change “doubt” campaign – to tame down the urgency with which people wanted action on climate change, and to create pockets of the US population that are absolutely convinced the entire issue is a hoax.

More concerning is that this is happening while the information on climate change is growing more alarming, with glaciers melting more rapidly than many models had predicted, with new studies suggesting carbon dioxide may stay in the atmosphere for longer than had been previously estimated, and with increasing signs that many of the world’s carbon sinks are growing stressed. The disconnect between scientific research and mainstream public opinion is huge, with many scientists quietly acquiescing that we should be performing small-scale experiments of geoengineering, since the social dynamics concerning climate change look so unlikely to change anytime soon.

That is why many organizations like 350.org have been calling for a social movement on this issue, to create the large-scale response needed to push social change. Activists have been trying to argue that action on climate change is a win-win-win: we clean up our environment, stimulate the economy with new technologies and jobs, and remove our dependence on unstable fuels.

What this movement needs, however, is some urgency. Research on climate change and risk perception show people think of climate change as a distant concern, not immediate to them, and not as pressing as other issues like the economic crisis. This is a problem, because the history of social movements and social change show that people often do not get active and involved in an issue until they can connect it to their daily lives, until it touches them personally. The economic crisis is touching people personally. Climate change, in the public mind - not so much.

This is where climate scientists could have a very important role to play: to begin shattering the taboo between weather and climate.

Right now, the conventional wisdom is that no specific weather event can be attributed to climate change. This is of course “true.” But it is the wrong question, and its persistence is having disastrous effects. First, it reinforces the public view that climate change is a remote, long-term concern not immediately affecting them. Second, it falls into the “uncertainty” argument - since you can't say that climate change “caused” a weather event, it ends up being an argument of doubt (and inaction) that plays into climate deniers' hands.

Again, the problem is it’s the wrong question, and we need to reframe the issue. Luckily, some are already doing this. In his paper “How Warm Was This Summer?” NASA scientist James Hansen suggests climate scientists reframe the question to: “Would these events have occurred if atmospheric carbon dioxide had remained at its pre-industrial level of 280 ppm?” To which he says: “An appropriate answer in that case is ‘almost certainly not.’”

Other scientists, for example, Ben Santer are using climate models as a “control experiment” for pre-industrial greenhouse gas levels, to determine how many times an extreme event of a given magnitude should have been observed in the absence of human interference, and compare that to present conditions, called “fractional attributable risk.

These are much needed advances, for both scientific and public understanding. The more people connect daily occurrences to increasing greenhouse gases, the more they’ll want to do something about it. Now.

The next step, of course, is getting the media and meteorologists to pay attention. But the more scientists discuss daily events, the more social scientists, activists, and other concerned people will demand attention be paid to it. And that will help raise the broader attention and concern we need around climate change. Because the best option, of course, is mitigation. And sadly it is an option we have yet to try.

Christine Shearer
Christine Shearer is a researcher for CoalSwarm, part of SourceWatch, and a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at UC Santa Barbara. She is managing editor of Conducive, and author of the forthcoming book, "Kivalina: A Climate Change Story" (Haymarket Books, 2011).

Figure 1: Conceptual framework showing (in the shaded area) the steps involved in planned adaptation to climate variability and change from Application of environmentally sound technologies for adaptation to climate change; United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Secretariat, Bonn, Germany, Technical Paper FCCC/TP/2006/2, 107 p

Climate Change

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.