Approximately 64% of Americans do not think climate change is a threat to their way of life. That 64% will be made up of climate change deniers as well as people who call themselves climate change “realists”. This is a hugely concerning problem; democracy demands that people are aware of the problem before action can be taken. To solve a problem the people are unaware of, or in active denial of is a serious problem to democracy. It involves spending their tax money in a way that isn’t representative, and from my history lessons I understand that Americans are strongly against taxation without representation.
The question is about how we go on to address this issue of awareness. Awareness is an absolute cornerstone of democracy. And my very first bit of advice would be to change the rhetoric the media uses, or at least produce media that uses more accurate rhetoric. Equating climate change to “longer and hotter summers” is simply not accurate. We are not talking about being able to wear shorts and a vest in February. We are talking about weather that is, on average, warmer as a result of extreme weather events. We are talking about fatally dangerous heat waves that will kill the vulnerable (old, young and people with particular illnesses). We are talking about storm events that will flood more places, more severely.
We are talking about climate stability changing, making agriculture less reliable. That reduces our access to food. We are talking about damage to infrastructure that will reduce the reliability of energy supply which will reduce access to healthcare. We are talking about droughts that will reduce access to water. We are talking about a fundamental diminishment of the vital needs of our population.
That so-called ‘climate realists’ deny this is a problem; pretending that climate change is just a warmer summer is dangerous. Quibbling about the exact relationship between storm strength and climate change is simply tweaking details, but distracts from the actual direction of change: droughts in one season, floods in another, fatalities from heat waves and the destruction of the infrastructure that delivers our energy, food and water. Maybe hurricanes won’t become more powerful, but that is a minor discussion distracting from a major theme. (But they will become more powerful; but that’s not the point.)
I think there are two basic ways of dealing with climate change. That 64% of American don’t think it’s a risk indicates there is a third option―deny it―but I’m not going to advocate that; it’s based on bad science (when it’s based on anything at all). The two options worthy of mention are: reducing carbon output by regulation and investment in ‘green’ energy technologies, perhaps with comparatively modest investments in technologies to increase the resilience of our infrastructure to climate change; or very heavy investment in technologies to increase our resilience to climate change.
The latter one is something few people are familiar with, so I’ll take a moment to explain it. Climate change is not the problem. The effects of climate change are the problem. But, if we can invest in near-zero energy costs, local solar-energy production, flood-proofed buildings, GMO crops that can grow through a drought, desalination plants to provide water and relocating people away from flooded areas, then we have solved the (anthropocentric) problem. Part of this solution is to charitably invest in vulnerable and poor places. I don’t just mean New Orleans, either. I mean Mozambique and Bangladesh.
There are downsides to the investment solution to the effects of climate change. One is that investment will be focused on human settlements and not ecosystems; climate change will still affect biodiversity in a big way. More concerning is that there is a time limit on this. We must be able to produce the knowledge, technology and investment at an affordable rate before climate change affects our economies so severely we just can’t keep up with changing needs. We need to have made reasonable headway with this solution before climate change cripples our economies. We also need to choose to defend Bangladesh, even if it isn’t profitable. We need political infrastructures in place that allow us to relocate people if we can’t defend Holland and Bangladesh before rising sea levels submerge them entirely.
As a result, I think we should probably also be investing in buying ourselves some more time. This will involve some levels of regulation, green energy production, carbon capture and, I think most productively, greening the deserts. A ‘greened’ desert is a carbon storage with the possibility of food production and even an ecosystem that stores water; it is a negative-carbon idea that supports biodiversity.
There is this idea that it is unfair for me to dismiss the ‘climate realists’ overly calm approach to downplaying the severity of climate change. And to that I respond that it is dangerous to start talking about science as if it should be a democracy open to the uninformed, and that it is dangerous to focus on comparatively minor disagreements―like storm intensity―until we have some sort of policy in place to deal with climate change in general. I’m all for a discussion that includes dissenting voices, but it has to be a rational discussion that cares what the evidence is and is willing to prioritise. Once we are solving the problem of vulnerability to heat waves and droughts and floods, we can talk about whether we need to increase resilience to more powerful storms. But we should not forego all action so that we can discuss a minor detail.
I don’t really care how we choose to combat climate change, regulation or investment in technology, or both. What I care about is that we start now, and we make sure we carry the developing countries and vulnerable people with us.