From time to time I ask people a question to gauge how much they know about climate change: “What’s your best guess, how much has Earth’s average temperature changed since the year 1900?
Since I live in the USA, the answers I get are invariably in degrees Fahrenheit rather than Celsius. Responses have ranged from 10°F to 30°F, until this morning when someone guessed 300°F.
If Earth’s average temperature had increased by 300°F (that’s 167°C) since 1900 we would all be dead already; even 30°F (16.7°C) increase would have killed most of us. I suspect that there are two reasons people tend to make such high guesses.
First, people have actually noticed that climate has changed. A recent respondent, who guessed a total 15°F increase, began by saying she had noticed that when she was a kid it wasn’t unusual to have snow on the ground on her birthday in May, but that simply doesn’t happen anymore. Yes, climate really has changed noticeably.
Second, not only have people noticed that climate has changed, they’ve also heard that global warming is dangerous. Their instinct tells them that for this to be true, we must have already warmed by 10°F or more, with yet more to come.
I’ve come to three consclusions based on the responses I’ve had so far.
First, people really have noticed that climate has changed. Snow on the ground in Maine in May used to be no surprise, but now is a rarity. Hurricanes used to be regular but rare disasters, now three hitting the U.S. in one year is still fresh in our memory. A once-in-500-years flood used to be shocking to Texans, but the residents of Houston have been through it the last three years in a row.
Second, folks tend to think of one or two degrees increase as being unimportant. Let’s face it, if the temperature in the room you’re in right now went up by 2°F, you might not even notice.
Third, people in general have next to no idea how the world is changing.
The readers of this blog probably know the correct answer: around 2°F (1.1°C). You probably also know that while 2°F isn’t worth worrying about in one room on a single day, when it persists (on average) day after day, year after year, not just in one town but (on average) over an area of nearly 200 million square miles, the effect is profound. After all, a global average cooling of a “mere” 9°F (5°C) spells the difference between the city of Chicago we know now, and Chicago covered by an ice sheet a mile thick.
But — Jane the plumber and Joe the waiter don’t know these things.
We advocates of climate action — especially scientists — too often labor under the misconception that we can convince people to pay attention by giving them more, and more sophisticated, information. How often have I mentioned the Clausius-Clapeyron equation? Or the multiple testing problem in statistics?
I’ve spent a lot of time refuting some of the nonsense that comes from climate deniers. Frankly it’s fun. And yes, it’s important, because when climate denier nonsense lets average voters deny the problem it’s very useful to cut the legs out from under their denier bullshit. And it’s fun.
But I’m starting to suspect that both climate denier bullshit, and sharp refutation of same, is only reaching a tiny fraction of the voting public. It’s not that the typical voter hasn’t heard the arguments and counter-arguments, the problem is that the typical voter hasn’t heard anything about what’s really happening.
So … what have they heard?
They’ve heard that the globe is warming. They’ve heard that most scientists say it’s a problem. They’ve heard that the cause is human activity, specifically “greenhouse gases” and in particular carbon dioxide (CO2). They’ve probably also heard that some of the recent disasters we’ve suffered, especially the horrible wildfires in California this summer, are related to man-made climate change.
But they don’t talk about it — at least, not in my neck of the woods. It’s not even “on the radar.”
So … how do we get it on the radar? I have some ideas; maybe you have others.
One is to talk about those things that they themselves have noticed, things they can personally relate to. In Maine, talk about ticks, how they used to be “no problem” when camping in the woods but are now a nasty pervasive pest and a genuine danger. Talk about how the ice-fishing season is a month shorter than it used to be. In Houston, Texas, talk about floods. In Florida and Norfolk, Virginia, talk about sea level rise, especially the “rainy day flooding” that comes every year, and talk about how the Navy and the Pentagon — you know, those tree-hugging liberals in the military — keep telling us that climate change is real, and it’s a threat to national security. In California, in fact throughout the western U.S., talk about wildfires.
But in my opinion, the main strategy we need to put front and center is: talk about it. Talk about it a lot. Talk about it to everybody. If you talk about it so much that people turn to each other and say “Here’s that guy who’ll talk about global warming again” — then at least they will be talking about it.
Don’t just talk about it here, with those of us who are “woke.” Don’t just talk about it with your friends and family. Talk about it with everybody. You don’t even have to talk their ear off — if you just mention it, at least they’ll have a blip on the radar.
Because until Jane the plumber and Joe the waiter see it on their radar, we won’t be able to get rid of the idiot politicians who are sending the world to hell in a handbasket.
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