Advocates Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Tell the Truth About Climate Change
By Jeremy Deaton
It has been a tough few months for climate change. In October, an international body of climate scientists declared humans have a little more than a decade to make the drastic changes needed to keep rising temperatures reasonably in check. In November, federal scientists released an equally grim assessment detailing the unprecedented floods, droughts and wildfires expected to hit the U.S. Then, this month, with the world ablaze, diplomats gathered in Poland to bicker over how much water each country should pour on their respective fires and, in some cases, whether scientists were exaggerating the size of the flames.
It's bad, for sure, and worse than most people realize. Many scientists and advocates go to great lengths to keep sanguine about the carbon crisis, even when the news is certifiably grim, and this threatens to undermine public understanding of climate change. Too many spoonfuls of sugar blunt the effect of the medicine.
When asked about the bleak climate news of late, Al Gore admitted, "I have more than a few periods when I struggle with the difference between hope and despair," before quickly adding that the work to stop climate change is "accelerating, for sure." Gore, who has repeatedly made the case for optimism on climate change, has spoken about "the need to deliver the message that we're winning. The hope is real. It's not a forced smile."
Emissions are rising and governments are stalling, but advocates remain relentlessly optimistic, anxiously pointing to the few rays of hope while staring into the abyss. Scientists, too, have warned against giving in to pessimism, as have a number of writers. Whenever the prospects for planet Earth start to look too dreary, the climate chorus chimes in on the need to stay upbeat.
This line of thinking derives from a relatively young and limited body of research into how people think about climate change, which has produced findings that are frequently overstated or misunderstood. Studies showing that people must feel empowered to act on climate change have been interpreted as a mandate for hope. The polling does not suggest there is a deficit of hope, however. If anything, Americans are not as worried as the science suggests they should be. Scientists, writers and advocates should not shy away from speaking honestly about climate change.
"I'm certain that most Americans would be a lot more worried about climate change if they understood even a small fraction of what has been projected by climate scientists in [recent reports]. As a public health professional (and as a human), I find the prospect of 3 or 4 degree C of global warming to be nothing short of terrifying," Ed Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, said in an email. "Thus, we need to do a much better job of sharing what we know about the likely impacts of global warming, because people are not nearly as worried as the situation warrants."
Despite the overwhelming evidence that Earth is headed for a planetary catastrophe, Americans just aren't that bothered about climate change. Only around half have thought about it more than "a little," according to research from Yale and George Mason University. Only around a third say it is personally important to them, and just one in five say they are "very worried" about it. Numbers like that suggest scientists and advocates have perhaps been too cheerful on climate change, too reluctant to speak to the catastrophe to come.
Impacts at 1.5 degrees C and 2 degrees C of warming. Carbon Brief
True, researchers have suggested that pessimism can lead to inaction. People who are less hopeful are less likely to take action. If one truly believes that climate change is a lost cause, then there is nothing left to do but party like it's 1999—literally. But the findings are far from conclusive. "Our recently self-published analysis suggests that people who are more hopeful seem to be taking more action, but there has been relatively little research on this question," Maibach said.
In many cases, fear can also be motivating. Studies show this is true even in the context of climate change, where gloomy messages can make people feel more concerned. Moreover, studies find that an especially rosy portrayal of climate change can leave people feeling too optimistic, too unlikely to take action. If people feel like everything will turn out alright, why bother getting off the couch?
This graph shows carbon pollution cuts necessary keep warming under 1.5 degrees C. Countries must cut emissions in half by 2030 and reach zero net emissions by 2050, at which point much of the remaining carbon dioxide must be scrubbed from the atmosphere.IPCC
As one pair of researchers asked, "Should we avoid telling what scientists have established as facts and reasonable outlooks about the seriousness, pace, and long-term commitment of climate change? Should we instead only discuss energy- and money-saving actions and convey pictures of hope by focusing on the easy actions, the 'doability' of mitigation? Should we perpetuate the idea that there are fifty 'simple ways to save the planet,' just to spare lay publics rather appropriate anxiety? Existing research suggests otherwise."
This is not to say advocates should focus exclusively on scaring people instead of inspiring them. It would be naive to think about climate change communication in binary terms. In practice, people draw on a range of emotions, values and beliefs when processing information. In recent commentary on the role of emotion in climate change communication, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst wrote, "The bifurcation between 'go positive' and 'go negative' simultaneously oversimplifies the rich base of research on emotion while overcomplicating the very real communications challenge advocates face by demanding that each message have the right 'emotional recipe' to maximize effectiveness." Emotions, they explain, "should be viewed as one element of a broader, authentic communications strategy rather than as a magic bullet designed to trigger one response or another."
A wind turbine. Pexels
The problem, Maibach said, may not be a shortage of hope or a surplus of fear, but a deficit of knowledge. Most Americans don't understand how bad climate change is or what humanity can do to stop it. As advocates explain the facts of a potentially world-ending dilemma, they must also describe specifically what can be done to address the problem. "It's complicated, but not that complicated. We need to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time," Maibach said.
"The people and organizations who don't want America—and the world—to deal with the potentially catastrophic problem that we face tell us, over and over again, that it will cost us too much to address the problem, and it will create a future that is hardly worth living for — like living in the stone age again," he said. "In reality, the exact opposite is true, but few people know it." Dealing with climate change will be disruptive and difficult, but it will also create jobs and save lives. Rather than make vague allusions to "climate action," advocates might do better to argue for specific policies that will achieve these goals.
Advocates rally for a Green New Deal. Sunrise Movement
Ultimately, the idea that regular people can't be told the full implications of climate change is condescending. Scientists, writers and advocates might consider that they go to work every day understanding the enormity of climate change, and yet they are able to do their jobs. The men and women who work on climate change are not made of tougher stuff, and they need not obscure the awful truth about the carbon crisis. People can take it. In fact, they'll have to.
Perhaps what makes it possible for advocates to continue their work is not a surplus of hope or an absence of fear, but a sense of duty. They respond to their grief with a righteous anger, to their panic with bravery, to their desolation with solidarity. Climate scientist Kate Marvel made this point in her recent essay in On Being.
"As a climate scientist, I am often asked to talk about hope. Particularly in the current political climate, audiences want to be told that everything will be all right in the end," she said. "I have no hope that these changes can be reversed. We are inevitably sending our children to live on an unfamiliar planet." In the face of climate change, she said, "We need courage, not hope. Grief, after all, is the cost of being alive. We are all fated to live lives shot through with sadness, and are not worth less for it. Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
The chance that UK summer days could hit the 40 degree Celsius mark on the thermometer is on the rise, a new study from the country's Met Office Hadley Centre has found.
- As Extreme Weather Turns Deadly in the UK, Climate Activists Are ... ›
- UK Parliament First in World to Declare Climate Emergency ... ›
By Melissa Hawkins
After sustained declines in the number of COVID-19 cases over recent months, restrictions are starting to ease across the United States. Numbers of new cases are falling or stable at low numbers in some states, but they are surging in many others. Overall, the U.S. is experiencing a sharp increase in the number of new cases a day, and by late June, had surpassed the peak rate of spread in early April.
Seven day rolling average of number of people confirmed to have COVID-19, per day (not including today). This chart gets updated once per day with data by Johns Hopkins. Johns Hopkins university doesn't provide reliable data for March 12 and March 13. Johns Hopkins CSSE Get the data
To Have a Second Wave, the First Wave Needs to End.<p>A wave of an infection describes a large rise and fall in the number of cases. There isn't a precise epidemiological definition of when a wave begins or ends.</p><p>But with talk of a <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/27/new-covid-19-clusters-across-world-spark-fear-of-second-wave" target="_blank">second wave in the news</a>, as an <a href="https://www.american.edu/cas/faculty/mhawkins.cfm" target="_blank">epidemiologist and public health researcher</a>, I think there are two necessary factors that must be met before we can colloquially declare a second wave.</p><p>First, the virus would have to be controlled and transmission brought down to a very low level. That would be the end of the first wave. Then, the virus would need to reappear and result in a large increase in cases and hospitalizations.</p><p>Many countries in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0908-8" target="_blank">Europe and Asia have successfully ended the first wave</a>. <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/08/new-zealand-abandons-covid-19-restrictions-after-nation-declared-no-cases" target="_blank">New Zealand</a> and <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/06/08/how-iceland-beat-the-coronavirus" target="_blank">Iceland</a> have also made it through their first waves and are now essentially coronavirus-free, with very low levels of community transmission and only a handful of active cases currently.</p>
Different States, Different Trends<p>Looking at U.S. numbers as a whole hides what is really going on. Different states are in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html" target="_blank">vastly different situations right now</a> and when you look at states individually, four major categories emerge.</p><ol><li>Places where the first wave is ending: States in the Northeast and a few scattered elsewhere experienced large initial spikes but were able to mostly contain the virus and substantially brought down new infections. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/new-york-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">New York</a> is a good example of this.</li><li>Places still in the first wave: Several states in the South and West – see <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/texas-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Texas</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/california-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">California</a> – had some cases early on, but are now seeing massive surges with no sign of slowing down.</li><li>Places in between: Many states were hit early in the first wave, managed to slow it down, but are either at a plateau – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/north-dakota-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">North Dakota</a> – or are now seeing steep increases – like <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/oklahoma-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Oklahoma</a>.</li><li>Places experiencing local second waves: Looking only at a state level, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/hawaii-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Hawaii</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/montana-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Montana</a> and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/alaska-coronavirus-cases.html" target="_blank">Alaska</a> could be said to be experiencing second waves. Each state experienced relatively small initial outbreaks and was able to reduce spread to single digits of daily new confirmed cases, but are now all seeing spikes again.</li></ol><p>The trends aren't surprising based on how states have been dealing with reopening. The virus will go wherever there are susceptible people and until the U.S. stops community spread across the entire country, the first wave isn't over.</p>
What Could a Second Wave Look Like?<p>It is possible – though at this point it seems unlikely – that the U.S. could control the virus before a vaccine is developed. If that happens, it would be time to start thinking about a second wave. The question of what it might look like depends in large part on everyone's actions.</p><p>The <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1086%2F592454" target="_blank">1918 flu pandemic</a> was characterized by a mild first wave in the winter of 1917-1918 that went away in summer. After restrictions were lifted, people very quickly went back to pre-pandemic life. But a second, deadlier strain came back in fall of 1918 and third in spring of 1919. In total, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-commemoration/1918-pandemic-history.htm" target="_blank">more than 500 million people were infected</a> worldwide and upwards of <a href="https://theconversation.com/compare-the-flu-pandemic-of-1918-and-covid-19-with-caution-the-past-is-not-a-prediction-138895" target="_blank">50 million died</a> over the course of three waves.</p><p>It was the combination of a quick return to normal life and a mutation in the flu's genome that made it more deadly that led to the horrific second and third waves.</p><p>Thankfully, the coronavirus appears to be much more <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.meegid.2020.104351" target="_blank">genetically stable</a> than the influenza virus, and thus less likely to mutate into a more deadly variant. That leaves human behavior as the main risk factor.</p><p>Until a <a href="https://theconversation.com/what-needs-to-go-right-to-get-a-coronavirus-vaccine-in-12-18-months-136816" target="_blank">vaccine or effective treatment is developed</a>, the tried-and-true public health measures of the last months – <a href="https://theconversation.com/this-simple-model-shows-the-importance-of-wearing-masks-and-social-distancing-140423" target="_blank">social distancing,</a> <a href="https://theconversation.com/masks-help-stop-the-spread-of-coronavirus-the-science-is-simple-and-im-one-of-100-experts-urging-governors-to-require-public-mask-wearing-138507" target="_blank">universal mask wearing</a>, frequent hand-washing and avoiding crowded indoor spaces – are the ways to stop the first wave and thwart a second one. And when there are surges like what is happening now in the U.S., further reopening plans need to be put on hold.</p>
- U.S. Coronavirus Death Toll Now No. 1 in World - EcoWatch ›
- U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Pass 100,000 - EcoWatch ›
- U.S. Coronavirus Cases Top 2 Million as All 50 States Start ... ›
By Eoin Higgins
Climate advocates pointed to news Sunday that fracking giant Chesapeake Energy was filing for bankruptcy as further evidence that the fossil fuel industry's collapse is being hastened by the coronavirus pandemic and called for the government to stop propping up businesses in the field.
- Fracking Industry's Propaganda Hypes Shale Gas Production and ... ›
- Another Blow to the Fracking Industry—Chesapeake Energy's ... ›
- Former Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon Is Back to ... ›
By Neil King and Gabriel Borrud
Human beings all over the world agreed to strict limitations to their rights when governments made the decision to enter lockdown during the COVID-19 crisis. Many have done it willingly on behalf of the collective. So why can't this same attitude be seen when tackling climate change?
- The Crunch Question on Climate: How Can I Help? - EcoWatch ›
- The Power of Collective Action Gangnam Style - EcoWatch ›
- Scientist Finds Remarkable Way to Connect People Emotionally ... ›
Fire experts have already criticized President Trump's planned fireworks event for this Friday at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial as a dangerous idea. Now, it turns out the event may be socially irresponsible too as distancing guidelines and mask wearing will not be enforced at the event, according to CNN.
- Trump's Fireworks Show at Mt. Rushmore Is a Dangerous Idea, Fire ... ›
- Attendees at Trump's First Rally Since March Can't Sue if They Get ... ›
By Emma Charlton
Gluts of food left to rot as a consequence of coronavirus aren't just wasteful – they're also likely to damage the environment.
Methane on the Rise<p>Not only is this a tragic waste of food at a time when many are going hungry, it is also an <a href="https://donatedontdump.net/2014/07/07/the-effects-of-food-waste-on-the-environment-by-junemy-pantig/" target="_blank">environmental hazard</a> and could contribute to global warming. Landfill gas – <a href="https://www.epa.gov/lmop/basic-information-about-landfill-gas" target="_blank">roughly half methane and half carbon dioxide (CO2)</a> – is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material.</p>
Food decay leads to production of greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide. EPA<p>Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 28 to <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2018/02/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full.pdf" target="_blank">36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat</a> in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.</p><p>"Many export-oriented producers produce volumes far too large for output to be absorbed in local markets, and thus <a href="https://unctad.org/en/pages/newsdetails.aspx?OriginalVersionID=2333" target="_blank">organic waste levels have mounted substantially</a>," says Robert Hamwey, Economic Affairs Officer at UN agency UNCTAD. "Because this waste is left to decay, levels of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, from decaying produce are expected to rise sharply in the crisis and immediate post-crisis months."</p>
Food supply chains are easily disrupted. UN FAO<p>Dumping food was already a problem before the crisis. In America alone, <a href="https://www.refed.com/?sort=economic-value-per-ton" target="_blank">$218 billion is spent growing, processing, transporting</a> and disposing of food that is never eaten, estimates ReFED, a collection of business, non-profit and government leaders committed to reducing food waste. That's equivalent to around 1.3% of GDP.</p><p>Since the pandemic took hold, <a href="https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-52267943" target="_blank">farmers are dumping 14 million liters</a> of milk each day because of disrupted supply routes, estimates Dairy Farmers of America. A chicken processor was forced to <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/11/business/coronavirus-destroying-food.html" target="_blank">destroy 750,000 unhatched eggs a week</a>, according to the New York Times, which also cited an onion farmer letting most of his harvest decompose because he couldn't distribute or store them.</p>
Food Prices Collapsing<p>The excess has also seen prices collapse. The <a href="http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/" target="_blank">FAO Food Price Index</a> (FFPI) averaged 162.5 points in May 2020, down 3.1 points from April and reaching the lowest monthly average since December 2018. The gauge has dropped for four consecutive months, and the latest decline reflects falling values of all the food commodities – dairy, meat, cereal, vegetable – except sugar, which rose for the first time in three months.</p><p>All this while the pandemic is exacerbating other global food trends.</p><p>"This year, some 49 million extra people may fall into extreme poverty due to the COVID-19 crisis," said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN. "The number of people who are acutely food or nutrition insecure will rapidly expand. <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGhLKAbNDiY&feature=youtu.be" target="_blank">Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruptions in the food supply chain</a>."</p>
- Food Waste Set to Increase by 33 Percent Within 10 Years - EcoWatch ›
- Reducing Food Waste Is Good for Economy and Climate, Report Says ›
- 23 Organizations Eliminating Food Waste During COVID-19 ... ›
Puerto Rico's governor declared a state of emergency on Monday after a severe drought on the island left 140,000 people without access to running water, despite the necessary role that hand washing and hygiene plays in stopping the novel coronavirus, as The Independent reported.
- When the Government Failed Puerto Rico, Local Communities ... ›
- Latino Voters Worried About Climate Change Could Swing 2020 ... ›