Climate report: Hope is not lost, but ‘we need to move faster’

Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters
A person holds an inflatable Earth as climate activists including Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future stage a protest demanding more action while G-20 climate and environment ministers hold a meeting in Naples, Italy, July 22, 2021.

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The specifics in this week’s report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are not encouraging. The Earth is heating up, with increasingly dire consequences.

But the group made a more hopeful point, too: There’s still time to do something about climate change.

Why We Wrote This

Despite this week’s alarming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, dire predictions don’t have to result in dire outcomes. That’s one of the report’s key takeaways.

That’s a message scientists have been increasingly trying to communicate as the public discourse has shifted from a debate over whether climate change is happening toward a conversation about what to do about it.

“What we’re trying to avoid is this idea of petrification, where it seems too bad and impossible to overcome,” says Daniel Bresette, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. “There’s a lot we have the ability to do,” he says.

Joellen Russell, a professor at the University of Arizona, agrees. She co-founded Science Moms to motivate other mothers to work for climate action.

Mothers, she says, have regularly dug in and demanded social change where it was hard. Now, she says, it’s time for them to act with urgency.

“There are all these amazing human beings, and companies, making wise decisions to save a buck and save the planet,” she says. “But we need to move faster.”

The news this week about the Earth’s future has been, for the most part, grim.

On Monday, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its first analysis of climate science in nearly a decade, declaring its findings a “code red for humanity.” The group, made up of hundreds of international scientists reviewing tens of thousands of published reports, found that this past decade was the hottest in 125,000 years. Glaciers are melting faster than at any time in the past 2,000 years, atmospheric levels of carbon are the highest in at least 2 million years, and the rate of ocean level rise has nearly doubled since 2006, the scientists wrote.

News organizations, which had been anticipating the dire forecast, echoed the U.N.’s alarm. “Nowhere to run,” declared The Associated Press. “A Hotter Future Is Certain,” said The New York Times. “No good news here,” wrote the Agence France-Presse.

Why We Wrote This

Despite this week’s alarming report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, dire predictions don’t have to result in dire outcomes. That’s one of the report’s key takeaways.

But for those whose job it is to raise awareness about climate change, there was another crucial point in the IPCC report: There is still time to do something about climate change.

That’s a message scientists have been increasingly trying to communicate as the public discourse shifts from a debate over whether climate change is happening toward a conversation about what to do about it.

For years, explains Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and co-founder of the blog RealClimate, the main effort around climate change communication was to convince doubters that the Earth was, indeed, getting warmer. But over the past decade, as the real-time effects of climate change have become more apparent, the number of climate change deniers in the United States has decreased, and the number of individuals alarmed about climate change has skyrocketed. 

According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 72% of the U.S. population in 2020 believed that “global warming is happening,” and the “alarmed” segment of the population grew by more than 50% between 2015 and 2020, from 17% to 26%. 

“We spent a good 20 years trying to convince the inconvincible, trying to use science and reason,” Dr. Schmidt says. “It turns out that things happening to you or people you know is more convincing.”

Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters
People hold League of Conservation Voters signs during a news conference urging action on climate change outside the U.S. Capitol on July 28, 2021.

Finding the right balance in messaging

But this shift has left scientists with a new communications dilemma: how to convey the urgency of climate change without making the situation seem so terrible, or so hopeless, that people disconnect from the problem altogether.

“What we’re trying to avoid is this idea of petrification, where it seems too bad and impossible to overcome,” says Daniel Bresette, executive director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, a nonprofit education and policy group that works with lawmakers to create climate-smart policies. “There’s a lot we have the ability to do,” he says. “It’s a matter of focusing on the sort of things that we can do to make things better, and avoiding doing things that can make it worse.”

A report like the IPCC’s this week can create significant anxiety, points out Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist at the University of Maine who also hosts the “Warm Regards” podcast about climate change.

“Some recent work shows that some amount of alarm is good and necessary,” she says. “That’s what can get people off of the couch and doing the sorts of things that we need to be doing to make a difference here.”

But there is also a risk that with too much bad news, and not enough guidance about how to respond to it, individuals can begin to feel powerless. 

“That feeling of helplessness can cause people to shut down; it can cause people to disengage,” says Dr. Gill. “What we need is for people to feel some sense of agency so that they can still show up.”

The reaction to climate analyses like the IPCC’s report doesn’t have to be either complete despair or shrug-it-off dismissal, she says. 

“There’s a lot of space between total civilization collapse … and everything is hunky-dory,” Dr. Gill adds.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters/File
Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe speaks during a discussion on the importance of protecting the planet at the South by South Lawn event at the White House, Oct. 3, 2016. She is one of the co-founders of Science Moms, which works with mothers to advocate for climate action.

Focusing on solutions 

That in-between place is important, says Joellen Russell, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies the ocean’s role in climate and who recently co-founded an initiative called Science Moms to motivate other mothers to work for climate action.   

Parents recognize the changing weather, Dr. Russell says. They are, like her, worried about letting their kids go out to play in yet another record-breaking summer heat wave. Many are also increasingly distraught about the climate-altered future their children will inherit if the world does not make changes.

Science Moms, a collaboration of female climate scientists, works to “help them raise their voices and put their outrage where they can make a difference,” Dr. Russell says. 

Mothers, she says, have regularly dug in and demanded social change where it was hard. Now, she says, it’s time for them to act with urgency and demand that everyone – individuals, policymakers, country representatives – moves faster.

This isn’t a pie-in-the-sky approach, she points out. There is evidence that both individual and group action can make an impact on climate change. The United States, she says, has reduced carbon emissions by 20% since 2007.

“There are all these amazing human beings, and companies, making wise decisions to save a buck and save the planet,” she says. “But we need to move faster.”

That is also a takeaway of the IPCC report. 

Actions today, scientists wrote, can mean the difference between the catastrophic effects of 4 degrees of global warming, such as dramatically increased flooding, deadly heat waves, and food shortages, and a still hot, but less devastating, temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the target put forth in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

That’s not to say the situation isn’t alarming, says Dr. Schmidt from NASA. It is, and scientists need to convey that reality.  

But now it is also time to personalize the message.

“I give a lot of public talks, and literally the No. 1 question that I’m asked is, ‘What do I do and how do I do it?’” says Dr. Schmidt.

“I say that you, as an individual, wear many hats. You’re a consumer, you’re also a parent, you are a member of a faith community, you go on a march and you go to Congress and you make your voice heard; you talk about it with your friends and family,” he says. “You can influence decisions not just in your household but in your city and state and country; you can elevate your voice enough that you and the others you’ve influenced impact those big decisions that will really make a difference.”

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