Are we at a crossroads in the climate debate? Will the renewed attention being paid to global warming in the wake of Hurricane Sandy be a lasting "teachable moment," or more of a Groundhog Day-like moment? What do I mean? Let's recall the wave of media (and science) coverage that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It served as a preview of the climate change/severe weather meme that has now become an effective frame for climate communicators. Additionally, in 2006, Al Gore's Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth helped to widely publicize the perils of climate change. That same year, Time magazine warned us:
Yes, there were a lot of teachable moments during the mid-2000s. And people seemed to be paying attention. I bet many thought a corner had been turned. Alas, public opinion on global warming swings easily (and superficially) between concern and indifference, like "waves in a shallow pan, with a lot of sloshing but not a lot of depth," Andy Revkin has observed. Thus it was no surprise when the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 pushed the looming climate crisis off the public radar. In the next few years, the bleak economy and political forces in the United States (such as the rise of the Tea Party and the GOP's dismissal of climate science) combined to make climate change an increasingly partisan issue that President Obama was eager to avoid during the 2012 election. Enter Hurricane Sandy. The massive, destructive storm has thrust global warming back into the national conversation these past few weeks. Michael Bloomberg's 11th-hour endorsement of Obama for reelection made big news in large part because of the Mayor's emphasis on climate change as a reason. Thought leaders, scientists, and pundits have similarly talked up climate change in a Sandy context. The media has done its part to stoke the conversation. Most of these efforts, as I discussed here, have sought to reinforce the message that "Frankenstorm" Sandy is a manifestation of greenhouse gas-fueled climate change and symbolic of the "new normal." However, there are some (who care deeply about communicating the climate threat) that have argued this may not be a wise strategy. Read, for example, George Marshall's essay at Revkin's Dot Earth blog. Marshall, if you aren't familiar with him, heads up the UK-based Climate Outreach and Information Network. Nobody can accuse him of being a crypto climate denialist or Big Oil stooge. His work is singularly focused on getting people engaged with climate change. Here's an excerpt of his recent essay:
In the wake of extreme heat, droughts, and Hurricane Sandy, many people are assuming that, at last, there may be the critical mass of extreme weather events that will tip public opinion towards action on climate change. This is based on the long held assumption that extreme climate events will increase awareness and concern "“ and this would seem logical considering that climate change suffers as an issue from distance and a consequent lack of salience. However this assumption deserves to be challenged. Climate change awareness is complex and strongly mediated by socially constructed attitudes. I suggest that there are some countervailing conditions "“ especially in the early stages of climate impacts. It is important to recognize that many of the social and cultural obstacles to belief are not removed by major impacts and may, indeed, be reinforced.
I encourage people to read the whole piece to grasp his argument. I kinda doubt that President Obama, in the aftermath of his victory, had time to read it. But he seems to understand the complicated cultural dynamics that Marshall discusses. In his recent press conference, the President said this:
So what I'm going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers, and elected officials to find out what can -- what more can we do to make a short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary -- a discussion, a conversation across the country about what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we're passing on to future generations that's going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.
Initially, I scoffed at this as an empty gesture. But I wonder if my critical judgement was too hasty. Maybe the way to build long-term, sustainable engagement with climate change is through an educational "listening tour," the likes of which Revkin and Mathew Nisbet have previously proposed. I realize that such an approach sounds modest compared to Bill McKibben's "Do the Math" tour and the groundswell of support for climate action he is currently trying to build. But the two goals need not be mutually exclusive. That said, the headlines continue to paint a narrative that works against the deliberative, consensus-building efforts that President Obama favors. This week, the World Bank issued a report (more a clarion call) that has been picked up widely in the media and accompanied by an op-ed by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim titled, "The Latest Predictions on Climate Change Should Shock Us Into Action." Other big climate news also generating worldwide headlines is this: "Greenhouse Gases Hit Record High." This latest alarming bulletin and the sense of urgency expressed by the World Bank feeds into a dominant narrative that, for many people, was epitomized by Hurricane Sandy. What will be interesting to see is if this Wake Up World! narrative diverts attention away from another important conversation that we should be having in a post-Sandy world that needs to be re-engineered with climate change in mind. Can we have more than one climate conversation at the same time?