Last week, newspapers across the world were ablaze with ominous headlines like Climate Change deaths could reach 100 million by 2030 if the world fails to act and “Climate Change Reducing Global GDP by $1.2 Trillion.”
The impetus for this rash of doomsday reporting was a study released by DARA (a Spanish non-profit) called The Climate Monitor. Commissioned by the Climate Vulnerability Forum, (a consortium of 20 counties most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change) the report compares the vulnerability of 184 countries to global warming’s impacts including environmental disasters, habitat change, health impacts and industry stress.
The Monitor doesn’t present significant new science, but focuses on collating existing research in bold new packaging. And, bold it is. It’s flashy graphics and big numbers were received with spectacle hungry enthusiasm by the media, knowing “I told you so” by the climate advocacy community and of course ridicule and rebuff from the usual suspects of climate skeptics. The most controversial (and somewhat misleading) claim is that 100 million people could die by 2030 from climate related deaths. The report cheekily lumps deaths from the carbon economy (e.g. air pollution and indoor smoke) in with climate change related deaths like hunger, vector borne diseases as well as heat and cold related diseases. To be fair, given that the carbon economy is the leading cause of climate change, it’s not much of a stretch.
The truth is that the accuracy of the Monitor’s facts and figures doesn’t really matter. The notion of certainty around climate change (and just about any other significant environmental shift) is, get ready for it, totally imaginary. My much beloved, Dave Roberts of Grist recently did a great piece on this.
For the past ten years, climate discourse has been fixated on certainty. A special thanks to Frank Luntz and the GOP on that one. Under Luntz's direction, painting climate change as “unsettled science” to spur confusion and halt action became standard policy for the right.
Unfortunately, climate advocates (in what is now clearly a poor strategic choice) fought conservative rhetoric with efforts to “prove” the existence of global warming and spur action with doomsday messaging. The lead up to the Copenhagen climate talks saw the epitome of this approach and it’s downfall as the entire climate movement rallied behind the conference as our last chance to “save the climate” and wound up with heart hearts and egg sodden faces.
We’re simply not capable of totally understanding the Earth’s massively complex climate system or controlling the immense global political machinery necessary to address climate change. As a result, uncertainty around the precise future of our climate is simply not going anywhere.
Today, mainstream climate discussion continues to focus on scientific debate rather than options for mitigating run away climate change or adapting to the now undeniably changing world. The Climate Monitor and its resultant headlines serve as proof that we’ve not yet learned our lesson.
Grassroots support for climate action is at an all time high. 75% of Americans think that government should be taking action to limit carbon emissions. Meanwhile, this week’s presidential debate saw a total silence on climate change and unquestioned allegiance from both candidates to the carbon economy. This was despite a massive push from the climate community to bring it to the forefront. Obviously, something’s not working here.
After a decade of engineered climate skepticism from the right and doomsday calls to action from the left – this line of reasoning is beyond dead. We need a radical shift in our approach. Now is the time to accept uncertainty and take bold action.
We have to face up to the fact that we not only don’t know what the future of our climate will look like, but that our modes of future planning may need some adjustment. In yet another great piece, Dave Roberts unpacks for us the World Bank’s recent white paper on decision making in the face of an uncertain climate. In essence, the paper lays out the importance of making robust decisions, over optimal ones — meaning plans for action that can work (relatively well) in a variety of circumstances.
In laymen’s terms, this means is that we have to stop waiting on perfect solutions and start implementing things that will work. And we need to do it now.
No matter what the outcome of the upcoming election, climate change is more real than ever before. Record breaking temperatures and wide spread drought are on the minds of countless Americans. Whether they like it or not, politicians will have to act on climate change, and they’ll have to do it soon.