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Has Climate Consciousness Reached a Tipping Point?

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Students gathered at the National Mall in Washington DC, Sept. 20. NRDC

By Jeff Turrentine

Nearly 20 years have passed since the journalist Malcolm Gladwell popularized the term tipping point, in his best-selling book of the same name. The phrase denotes the moment that a certain idea, behavior, or practice catches on exponentially and gains widespread currency throughout a culture. Having transcended its roots in sociological theory, the tipping point is now part of our everyday vernacular. We use it in scientific contexts to describe, for instance, the climatological point of no return that we'll hit if we allow average global temperatures to rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. But we also use it to describe everything from resistance movements to the disenchantment of hockey fans when their team is on a losing streak.


Right now, climate consciousness in America appears to be at a tipping point. The current discourse in this country surrounding the climate crisis, both its causes and its effects, feels bigger, more serious, and less contentious than it ever has before. The underlying message — that we can't wait any longer to curb carbon emissions, and that all the world's nations have to act in unison to get it done — is finally breaking through to people who hadn't been getting that message before.

Crowds pack the streets in lower Manhattan.

Rick Gershon / NRDC

Something out there has changed. Recent polls show that nearly 8 out of 10 Americans now acknowledge that human activity is fueling global warming, and half of them understand that we need to act within the next 10 years to escape its worst effects. You also see this attitudinal change in studies suggesting that the decades-old ideological divides between Americans on the issue are eroding and that people of all political stripes are finally beginning to see that we really are in this thing together. The shift is also apparent in the present media environment, one where journalists no longer feel obligated to frame the climate issue as some sort of a bogus "debate" and are instead just reporting the facts, as troubling as those facts may be.

As welcome as it is, this moment is long overdue. Scientists have been warning us about the consequences of global warming for decades, and environmentalists have been pressing for ameliorative action through emissions reductions and a transition to a clean energy economy. But fossil fuel companies, sensing a threat to their profitable status quo, launched a protracted and well-funded disinformation campaign, turning what should have been a common cause into a fractious, albeit false, debate. Their goals were to sow doubt and delay action — and they succeeded. While other countries around the world were taking their first steps to combat the climate crisis, Americans have been busy arguing over whether it even existed.

After Donald Trump's victory in 2016, the stalemate seemed finally to have broken, but not in a good way. With an open climate denier occupying the highest office in the land, many rightly worried that achieving large-scale climate action would only get more difficult. How, they wondered, could they win the hearts and minds of tens of millions of Americans who were inclined to believe the president's dashed-off climate tweets rather than the international scientific consensus? Even more troublingly: How could they ever reach critical mass — the tipping point — on climate action without getting these people on their side?

And then 2017 happened. The first year of Trump's presidency overlapped, coincidentally, with a series of climate-sensitive catastrophes that helped make it the most expensive year ever for weather-related disasters. California experienced its most destructive wildfire season on record, with more than 9,000 fires burning up nearly 1.4 million acres of land and killing dozens. In just one month, three massive hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, and Maria — battered coastlines in quick succession, killing more than 3,000 people along their path and causing more than $265 billion in damage, making 2017's hurricane season the costliest in U.S. history. Cities and states experienced record-high temperatures: Phoenix had its warmest year on record, and even cool and clammy San Francisco saw its mercury rise to a historic high of 106 degrees. By the end of the year, 2017 would earn the title of the second-hottest year on record — just behind 2016.

As scientists, journalists, and activists continued to emphasize the links between extreme weather events and anthropogenic climate change, it simply became harder and harder to deny the validity of those links. So you might say that the American people were primed to receive the message of the 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which detailed the full range of likely consequences of allowing more than 1.5 °C of warming. Media coverage of the IPCC's staggering findings was extensive — but as one Yale University–affiliated publication noted, the report's impact on public opinion was "unclear." Hard data had never proved persuasive to the skeptics before. Why, some wondered, should we expect the scientific facts to influence them now?

Children at the New York City climate strike.

Kristen Walsh / NRDC

Yet here we are, almost exactly a year later, and it seems safe to say that America's climate consciousness has reached a new level. Just check the local news today in practically any major U.S. city, where millions of young people and their older allies are participating in the Global Climate Strike. The protesters are galvanized and mobilized in a way that we haven't seen since the 1960s, when young Americans took to the streets and demanded — and ultimately won — monumental changes.

And if climate awareness hasn't yet reached critical mass, then it likely will by the end of next week, once all the images and accounts of the massive youth-led movement have circulated and sunk in — and not just with ordinary folks like you and me, but with representatives from all around the world at the United Nations. I truly expect we will come away from this moment changed in our focus, our attitudes, and our dedication to saving the planet and ourselves. And we'll have our children to thank for it.

Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.

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