How Scientists Are Moving Climate Change Conversation Forward
Last January, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times—If You See Something, Say Something—about my feelings of duty as a climate scientist to engage with the public. I hoped it would help other scientists feel more comfortable speaking out to the public about the dangers of a world warmed by human emissions.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
Little did I know that exactly two months later, the largest scientific organization in the world and publisher of the leading academic journal Science would launch an initiative aimed at doing just that—move the conversation forward by telling Americans “What We Know.” It boils down to three main points—97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is here and now, that this means we risk abrupt and irreversible changes to the climate, and the sooner we act, the lower the costs and risks we face.
The focus of this initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is to help Americans understand climate change, but also to inform us of some of the less probable but more painful risks we face by our continued inaction. By consulting with economists, the report was able to address the fact that the sooner we take action, the lower the cost and the less risk we face.
That last point is one that warrants a little unpacking. While climate contrarians have suggested for the past few decades that we take a “wait and see” approach, legitimate scientists work hard to tease out the influence of climate change on the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events.
This detective work of pinning down exact contributions of humans is known as attribution, as in “exactly how much climate change can we attribute to humans?” Originally this question was very important, as its answer determined if mankind was responsible for warming. Thanks to decades of research, we know that humans are to blame with the same certainty that smoking and cancer are linked. Attribution studies continue though, as some scientists seek to pin down attribution of specific extreme weather events. The thinking, I suppose, is that only if we can say a particular event was 100 percent caused by climate change, can we meaningfully talk about the impact that climate change is having on extreme events. I am unconvinced, however, that this is an especially useful way of looking at how climate change is impacting weather extremes. It is a bit like trying to prove that a particular home run hit by a baseball player on steroids was due to the steroids. It’s asking the wrong question.
And this latest report shows us that the contrarian “wait and see” is not a prudent course of action, and that we don’t have time to work out exactly how much more dangerous and destructive certain types of extreme events (heat waves, prolonged drought, and superstorms) are being made by our escalating CO2 emissions. You don’t wait to see if the fire will spread through the whole building to attempt to extinguish the flame. You don’t wait until after you get into a car accident to buy insurance. And you don’t wait until you’re critically ill to go to the doctor. So why would you wait for increasingly damaging climate changes to start reducing emissions?
Which brings us to the point: we need to get serious about dealing with this crisis or we risk increasingly damaging and potentially irreversible climate change impacts. The excessive equivocation all too characteristic of scientific discourse (the phenomenon that Naomi Oreskes refers to as “erring on the side of least drama”), is often inappropriately leveraged as a justification for inaction by those opposed to reducing fossil fuel usage. Nuanced language is standard and necessary in academia, but just doesn’t translate when talking to the public. As I state in the epilogue of my book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars:
Despite the battle scars I’ve suffered from having served on the front lines in the climate wars—and they are numerous—I remain convinced that there is nothing more noble than striving to communicate, in terms that are simultaneously accurate and accessible, the societal implications of our scientific knowledge.
So because my “see something say something” advice seems to have been heeded, let me try on a new meme: If you know it, show it. As scientists, we need to stop dancing around the point and use plain English in describing what we do know. Rather than confusing the public with obscure and often misleading science-speak, we must explain, in plain terms, the nature of what we do know: That we face great peril if we do nothing to avert the climate change crisis.
Any sober assessment of the problem demonstrates that the costs of inaction will greatly outweigh the cost of action, and the sooner we start, the easier it will be to transition to a clean energy economy. Precisely what policy measures we should pursue to encourage that transition is a worthy matter of debate. But we cannot, and should not, continue to pretend that inaction is a viable strategy.
Since we know that climate change poses a real threat to us, what are we going to do about it? Do we want to be a leader in the transition to a clean energy economy, much as it was a leader in fossil fuel energy revolution of the 1800s? Or do we want to take the “wait and see” approach, knowing that doing so not only risks our climate, but also our country's economic position in the race to a future powered by clean energy? It really is that stark a decision that we face. Let’s make the right choice.
A rare yellow penguin has been photographed for what is believed to be the first time.
- World-Renowned Photographer Documents Most Remote ... ›
- This Penguin Colony Has Fallen by 77% on Antarctic Islands ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Stuart Braun
We spend 90% of our time in the buildings where we live and work, shop and conduct business, in the structures that keep us warm in winter and cool in summer.
But immense energy is required to source and manufacture building materials, to power construction sites, to maintain and renew the built environment. In 2019, building operations and construction activities together accounted for 38% of global energy-related CO2 emissions, the highest level ever recorded.
- Could IKEA's New Tiny House Help Fight the Climate Crisis ... ›
- Los Angeles City-Owned Buildings to Go 100% Carbon Free ... ›
- New Jersey Will Be First State to Require Building Permits to ... ›
By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.