Changing the talk about climate

Communities around the world are finding that mutual respect enables shared solutions to the effects of shifting weather patterns.

Jason Hoekema/Valley Morning Star via AP
Wind turbines loom behind a farm at harvest time in Rio Hondo, Texas.

There is never a time when farmers don’t worry about crop yields and bushel prices. But for wheat farmers in southwestern Kansas, Russia’s war in Ukraine has added a new moral burden. An abnormally dry summer has cut their harvests in half at a time of acute global grain shortages. “That’s honestly what’s weighing on me more than anything,” one grower, David Schemm, told The New Yorker.

Mr. Schemm’s sense of responsibility for humanity’s welfare reflects an increasingly shared truth in a world of changing weather patterns. While climate change may be the reason for more intense droughts and forest fires, many of the solutions are practical – like ending war or opening shipping channels. They are based on a commitment to the common good.

“By focusing too much on climate change, it really takes the responsibility, but also the agency, away to address these local drivers of disasters such as high poverty rates, missing infrastructure, investment, missing healthcare system,” Friederike Otto, a climate change professor at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, told The Guardian recently. The overestimation of climate change “is not very helpful for actually dealing [with] and for actually improving resilience to these threats.”

That lesson applies to the growing current of human migration. The World Bank estimates that 140 million people will be displaced by climate change by 2050. That prediction anticipates increasingly severe problems at both ends of migration corridors, like hunger, natural disasters, and overwhelmed cities. But that is not inevitable. In countries like Honduras and El Salvador, for example, simple adaptation strategies like new crop varieties and even seaweed cultivation are enabling more families to decide not to leave.

On the destination side, climate-related migration is already driving creative new research on urban design, infrastructure, and ecology that sees new arrivals as beneficial rather than burdensome. “The shift from perceiving climate migration as ‘shock’ toward seeing it as a process [can] help communities receiving migrants adjust socially, making migrants a more welcome force for positive change,” said Soledad Patiño, an Argentine architect at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, in a recent article on the school’s website.

Similar shifts in thinking are underway in the United States at the state and local level. A clean energy bill sitting on Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk in Massachusetts, for example, shows what is possible when political divisions about climate change are replaced by encouragement, consensus, and inclusivity. While greening the state’s grid, the new law would provide tax incentives for business, environmental protection for fisheries, and technical training programs for high schoolers. On the social side, it encourages investment in minority- and women-owned small businesses.

From California to North Carolina, lawmakers and community leaders are finding that partisan differences give way when stakeholders emphasize unity and collective uplift. Rural people, in particular, “feel the finger’s pointing at them for not making the change,” said Matt Houser, an environmental science professor and co-author of a new study by Indiana University. “We need to find ways to ... enable people to live out their values while also taking action on climate change.”

After decades of divisive debate, a new conversation about climate change is unlocking innovation and progress.

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