cwick (Chadwick Matlin, features editor): Summertime, and the livin’ is really freaking hot. People are jumping into the sea in Greece to avoid wildfires. The temps are higher than they’ve ever been in Japan. California is dealing with the biggest wildfires it’s ever seen. The heat even has Andean flamingos laying eggs for the first time in 15 years.
The consequences of climate change are growing more undeniable than ever. Which leads me to wonder: What now?
Christie and Maggie, thanks for joining the Slack chat to answer that totally simple question.
christie (Christie Aschwanden, lead science writer): “simple” question
cwick: Editors pride themselves on asking giant questions and demanding simplified answers.
maggiekb (Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science writer): Glad to be here, Chrad.
cwick: Off to a great start, Meggie.
maggiekb: I pride myself on my typing skills.
cwick: I want us to try tackling the question in a few different ways:
- By talking about the politics of climate change, of course.
- By discussing whether the dire reality of climate change means that scientists’ roles in public discourse ought to change going forward.
- And by answering the question of what comes next: Are all these ecological changes the new normal or just a waypoint on an even more dangerous trajectory?
christie: This is a lot to chew on. I didn’t realize we were going to be here all day!
cwick: So let’s start with politics — much was made that President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. But is there any line to draw between the hot summer we’re having and Trump’s decision?
christie: Well, there’s a line to draw, but it’s not between this hot summer and Trump’s decision. The heat of this summer was set with the emissions we’d already spewed into the atmosphere.
The goal of the Paris climate agreement was to keep the overall average temperature of the planet from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, and some estimates suggest that we’ve already put out enough greenhouse gases to exceed 1.5 degrees. To keep our emissions within the 2-degree “carbon budget” will require countries to leave 80 percent of coal, 50 percent of gas and 33 percent of oil untouched until at least 2050.
maggiekb: There’s a gap between immediate news and climate consequences. Arguably, one of the big problems with the politics of climate change is that the results and the risks play out on different time scales than the politics.
cwick: Maggie, I think that’s a sharp insight about why political action has been so hard to come by on climate change. (Corporate interests have also played a role, of course.) What’s a politician to do about that dynamic?
maggiekb: Oh, corporate interests have DEFINITELY played a role. But what I think is particularly interesting is how they played a role. One of the things I’ve written about in regard to the Paris agreement is that, 30 or 35 years ago, it probably would have been a bipartisan, no-debate sort of thing. Starting around 1990, environmental legislation became WAY more divisive.
christie: And I would argue that one reason that happened is there were real efforts underway to do something about it, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, for instance. But then the corporate interests swooped in…
maggiekb: What made the corporate interests successful is that they were able to convince enough conservatives that climate science was a backdoor to oppressive, statist, globalist government.
cwick: Was it just conservatives? Obviously they’ve been more vocal about climate denialism, but Democrats are just as susceptible to corporate influence.
maggiekb: Oh, they are, Chard.
My point here isn’t that conservatives are bad, bad, bad. My point is that we keep having these debates about climate science … while ignoring that what the debate is actually about is political philosophy.
christie: What happened was that climate change became an identity issue. As Dan Kahan at Yale has documented, “What people ‘believe’ about global warming doesn’t reflect what they know; it expresses who they are.”
maggiekb: You can’t show people enough charts to make them believe climate change is a real threat if they feel like accepting what they see in the charts is going to hurt them and their family. And I think that’s the fundamental political problem here. What the corporations did right (for their purposes, not for the planet) is to turn the science (that you can’t argue about) into a proxy for political philosophy (which you can).
maggiekb: And so scientists and politicians who care about climate change spend all their effort now trying to explain uncertainty spreads and the greenhouse effect when the conversation that we actually should be having is, “OK, how can we tackle this problem in a way that is philosophically acceptable to the most people?”
cwick: So given all that, what are climate-minded voters in the U.S. to do right now? Should they be focusing on state-level legislation instead of federal?
christie: Chad, a bunch of governors have banded together to take action. What’s happening now is a bottom-up kind of approach that’s happening on local and state levels. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told Yale Environment 360, “We heard the president wanted to run up the white flag of surrender. We wanted to send a strong message to the world: We’re not going to surrender.”
maggiekb: I can’t help but be a little skeptical of a city-level treaty having a big impact on a global problem. Am I being a stick-in-the-mud, Christie?
christie: You are being a stick-in-the-mud, Maggie.
maggiekb: Thank you. I need to be told that occasionally.
christie: Everyone has to pitch in, so it’s not at all insignificant that cities are doing that.
Also, when a city or state adopts climate-friendly technology and regulations, that can have a ripple effect. For instance, California’s market is big, so when it makes stricter rules for fuel efficiency, manufacturers are nudged into producing the necessary products to meet them.
When a city looks to improve energy efficiency in its buildings, it creates a market for those products too.
maggiekb: That reminds me of this article, which shows how the growing size of American homes (and the growing number of electrical appliances in them) all but canceled out gains in home energy efficiency.
christie: Oh, yes, the beer fridge problem! You get a new, energy-efficient fridge and then keep the old one in the garage. Or, what happened to me was that I got a very fuel-efficient car, and I felt less guilty driving so I did more of it.
cwick: That’s an argument the Trump administration is making in repealing car efficiency standards — an argument that experts have said doesn’t have much statistical logic.
maggiekb: The rebound effect, which is what this dynamic is called, is complicated. It’s logical, for sure. And there’s evidence of it happening in some situations … but not in others. And people don’t always behave logically.
christie: People usually don’t behave logically!
maggiekb: Heh, a better way to put that, yes. Overall, when I was really heavily into researching the rebound effect (because I wrote a book), what people were finding was that it was real and it could have BIG effects on how much efficiency you actually got out of a given intervention. But there was also good reason to think that, broadly, the overall effect was not increasing energy use. You can reduce energy use through efficiency, basically. And since then, we’ve kind of seen that play out. Overall electricity use in the U.S. stopped growing around 2008 (at least as of 2015). And while that trend started with the Great Recession, it didn’t end when the recession ended. We seem to have decoupled GDP growth and energy use, which is a BIG deal.
The only academic paper on which I am a named author dealt with this issue and the efforts to understand where it does and doesn’t apply. (Because sometimes academics turn your interview into a white paper.)
christie: Efficiency is a very important way to reduce emissions, but when you do the math, it’s very clear that it won’t be enough. We will also need to use less. And that’s a discussion that most politicians don’t want to have. I mean, most people don’t want to have it …
cwick: I think we should move on from the politicians and to the scientists.
christie: You’re making my point.
Maggie, you just wrote about the dangers of science becoming too partisan — do you expect scientists’ thoughts on climate change to be any more present in our political debates going forward?
maggiekb: Short answer, Chad: No. Look, climate change has been successfully partisanized. When we talk about it, we aren’t talking about science anymore. Or, at least, not just about science. And half the stuff you can say has become a dog whistle to somebody.
I think if anybody is going to shift the climate debate in politics, it’s not going to be scientists. It’s going to be groups like the Evangelical Environmental Network. Or the American Conservation Coalition, which is a bunch of millennial conservatives pushing for and endorsing environmentalist candidates who approach the issue from their own political philosophy.
christie: Totally agree, Maggie.
There are leaders in the religious community who see this as a moral issue. And Katharine Hayhoe is a climate scientist who is also an evangelical Christian and has done a lot of communication trying to bridge the gap.
cwick: Have either of you seen the movie “First Reformed”? It’s the best movie about the intersection of religion and environmentalism I’ve ever seen. Which doesn’t say much, I know, but it’s a fascinating movie! In it, the church’s inaction on climate change is used as a metaphor for rot within American morality.
christie: Interesting. I hadn’t heard of it.
cwick: Gotta resubscribe to your Ethan Hawke fanzines, Christie.
maggiekb: Basically, what I’m saying is that we are at a point where the call has to be coming from inside the house, so to speak.
christie: Absolutely, Maggie — because we’re not talking about science, we’re talking about identity here. So you need people from within the identity groups that typically doubt climate change to start talking about climate change.
maggiekb: Scientists, by their own identification, are a predominantly liberal-leaning, Dem-voting bunch. And conservatives are aware of that. And so scientists aren’t going to be the ones who change minds and convince people that environmentalism can be a conservative value.
christie: But also, it’s really important to point out here that science can’t tell us what to do.
It can tell us what needs to be done in the sense that we need to stop emitting so much greenhouse gas, but it can’t tell us the best way to do that.
cwick: OK, to close things out, I think it’s worth dwelling on what’s to come. We started this chat noting that Trump pulling out of the Paris accord didn’t have any effect on what we’re seeing now, but it likely will on whatever climate is still to come. Is it right to assume that this sweltering summer is just the beginning of what’s to come? Are the effects of climate change only going to be more present — and more chaotic than they are now?
christie: Um, maybe.
maggiekb: I think (and I laugh about wording it this way, because what I’m actually saying is “the science suggests”) that yeah, the climate is going to continue to look different than it did in our childhoods. But I’d caution against too much emphasis on “Wow, this summer sure is hot” as a metric.
christie: I mean, it’s going to be getting hotter. That’s almost certain. But there will be variability too. Overall, it will get warmer.
maggiekb: Because, as Christie said, there’s variability. Winter does not disprove climate change. A cooler summer next year doesn’t disprove climate change.
christie: Some people like to use the term “global weirding” instead of global warming, because one thing that climate change does is disrupt systems that drive weather, so you also get more extreme weather events. In some places, the most noticeable effects might be things like flooding.
maggiekb: “Summer is hot” is not a headline that proves climate change, conversely. You have to look at the trend lines.
maggiekb: Minnesota summers are now hot enough for my family to buy … counting on my fingers … four window unit air conditioners because we finally decided there are enough days that are hot enough that fans don’t cut it. So now we’re using more energy. Because climate change. Which also causes climate change.
Who wants a drink?
christie: With ice, please! (Which also takes energy to produce…)