At the end of this year there will be a critically important international climate change conference in Paris . At this conference, nations will attempt to reach an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming.
Over the past few months there’s been a flood of big climate-related news, most of which will help build support and pressure for a strong agreement to curb global warming at the Paris conference. The political and social climate is shifting, and those in denial about human-caused climate change are struggling to adapt.
Scientific research underscores climate risks
John Abraham recently reported on two separate studies published in Nature and Nature Climate Change , both of which found that global warming is intensifying several types of extreme weather. California is in the midst of a drought unprecedented in over a millennium, a heat wave is killing thousands of people in India and Pakistan, another has been baking Europe , and it seems as though half of North America is on fire .
One challenge in generating public support for tackling climate change is in the perception that its consequences are distant in time and space. People tend to believe that climate change will impact others in the future, but not themselves, and not now. As we see more examples of extreme weather, and the evidence for a climate connection strengthens, more people may begin to consider climate action a higher priority.
More research is warning of climate change causing major threats to ocean ecosystems and consequently to humans as well. A recent study found that we’re headed towards a climate state similar to those that saw sea levels 6 meters higher in the past. Further sea level rise is a foregone conclusion; the questions we now face are how much more of a rise we’ll trigger, and crucially, how fast it will happen. Meanwhile, the oceans are warming faster than predicted , and 2015 is on pace to shatter the global temperature record that was set just last year.
At the same time, social science research is showing that most climate ‘skepticism’ actually results not from rigorous scientific skepticism, but rather from conspiratorial thinking . As the opposition to climate science and solutions more clearly boils down to psychology and ideology, fewer people will find the associated arguments convincing.
The pope and grassroots volunteers call for action
The case for climate action received a big boost when the pope made the moral case for the need for urgent climate action, writing in his encyclical ,
Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.
Support for climate action among faith groups has been gradually building, and the pope’s encyclical is the most influential call for stewardship of the climate to date.
The grassroots climate group Citizens’ Climate Lobby used the pope’s message in many of its meetings between 800 of the group’s volunteers and 500 congressional offices last month. Interestingly, while many conservative policymakers are dismissive of the expert consensus on human-caused global warming in public, such behavior was noted in less than 10% of these private meetings. As the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby wrote ,
In meeting after meeting with Republican offices, the unspoken agreement seemed to be: “Let’s not argue about the science; let’s talk about solutions and where we might find common ground.”
There appears to be some bipartisan support for climate action behind the scenes. The challenge is in translating those private stances to the public positions of conservative lawmakers, but with support from faith and military groups and clearer climate consequences for their constituents, it’s an inevitability, sooner or later.
Denial isn’t paying off anymore
We recently learned that fossil fuel companies have known about the climate impacts of their products for over three decades. For example, Exxon decided against developing a natural gas field in Indonesia in 1981 because of the potentially large carbon dioxide release and associated climate impacts. The company nevertheless spent more than $30m over the next 30 years on think tanks and researchers that promoted climate denial. When asked about this discovery, Exxon spokesman Richard Keil said,
We have been factoring the likelihood of some kind of carbon tax into our business planning since 2007. We do not fund or support those who deny the reality of climate change.
In the US presidential race, Democratic Party candidates have been racing to establish the most aggressive climate policy platform . With a few exceptions , most Republican Party candidates have shifted away from outright climate denial, instead using the “I’m not a scientist” cop-out. Democrats seem to believe that even that stance is a political liability . We’re a long way from recent elections in which many Democratic candidates were afraid to talk about climate change and denial was the norm among Republican candidates .
Four months away from the Paris international climate conference, momentum seems to be building rapidly in support of serious climate action, and climate denial may soon make it onto the endangered species list.