The Third National Climate Assessment – Denial That Limits Needed Action

The 3rd National Climate Assessment is a very impressive report: well written, great language, great graphics, very informative (especially the website). The Obama Administration seems to be focusing in on climate change as a legacy issue and the average American reading this report must surely understand that climate change is happening now and has immediate costs in a threatened American economy.

But why then have the Administration and authors chosen to mis-educate Americans by focusing so narrowly on just ‘extreme weather for Americans’? And why has a frame or conceptualization of climate change and mitigation been chosen that will continue to keep America from needed action and from global leadership on climate action that is desperately needed?

The report summarizes the effects of climate change on the US now and in the future. As a CNN commentator observed, it is not about a nebulous, future global problem but about what is happening now where you live – with impressive data, interactive graphics and already happening mitigation and adaption strategies. As many commentators on past failure to communicate climate change have pointed out: our brains have evolved to be local and temporal. And obviously the Administration and those responsible for the report also want to tell “a good news story about the many opportunities to take cost-effective actions to reduce the damage”.

But climate change is a suite of dangers for Americans and warming today far away from US shores, not local but with far more sinister implications, gets very minimal attention in the 840 page report. There are latent carbon bombs and other potential positive feedbacks; for example temperature increase nearly twice what Americans are experiencing is melting the Arctic icecap resulting in an albedo feedback that threatens to add ever increasing heat in a very sensitive area. The language in the report about this possible feedback and consequences for Americans is very good but buried in the relentless focus upon local weather.

For another example, the United States is a rich developed nation with superb technological capacity to adapt to climate change sea level rise, drought or extreme storms, but, as the US military has repeatedly warned, climate change is a threat multiplier in a developing world where populations and governments are much more vulnerable. War and contagion spreading from vulnerable ‘failed states’ – what if the monsoon climate pattern shifts? – is arguably much more of a danger to the well being of Americans than sea level rise, changing precipitation patterns and storms at home. (Not to mention any empathy for the billions of vulnerable people outside of America.)

The risk management approach advocated by the report would surely scale and rank the full suite of dangers and mitigation responsibilities – so why doesn’t this report?

A much more troubling concern is why the Administration and the report’s authors continue to characterize, frame or conceptualize climate change in a way that will continue American failure to lead in making emission reductions of a scale needed to stay safely away from triggering “dangerous climate change.” Throughout the whole report, climate change is presented as a growing threat that Americans can understand and respond to; the report is an attempt to once again inform Americans about the consequences of climate change – see it’s happening here and here, where you live, interact with this graph, the science is undeniable, see – so that supposedly a citizen consensus will finally allow mitigation of a scale needed.

This is a recipe for continued inaction. It tells the story in a way that Americans will marginally better understand the personal and economic implications of climate change – those few who will read even some of the report, those already informed few who have the capacity/worldview/education etc to benefit from this impressive compilation of American climate science. But tell the story this way and Americans will still choose, rationally and irrationally, to rank climate dangers as less important than the economy or terrorism or even who’s going to win the NBA championship or what new phone to buy.

What is needed isn’t more and better information. What is needed isn’t an informed American public. This profoundly wrongfoots about how America is governed, how change happens, how emission reduction of a scale needed in the US will happen. Conceptualizing climate change dangers and possible mitigation in this way keeps climate change as just one of many issues that must be shoehorned into economic and political business as usual. It is saying to Americans: it’s your choice, knowing full well that this will continue the now at least two decades old procrastination of needed action.

Let me offer a quick sketch of another way of telling the story and a much more realistic path to American leadership on emissions reduction (for example, the legal path to forcing the American government to protect its citizens presently being pursued by Dr. James Hansen and the Children’s Trust).

Instead of “here is the information, it’s your choice,” when you know polarized politics, gridlock and short term, selfish economic fear means the choice will be doing almost nothing while emissions continue to rise – in America and in American factories throughout the developing world we need an alternative.

With time lags in the carbon cycle and overcoming inertia that average around 40 years, the real situation is: we benefit greatly from both the production and use of fossil fuels, but the consequences of our actions today will fall on innocents in the future: our kids and their kids, everybody’s kids world-wide. What to do about climate change isn’t our choice of actions and consequences effecting us – climate change is about responsibility for our actions today that will have serious negative consequences for our descendents for centuries into the future.

And the suite of potential climate consequences – usually labeled as dangerous climate change – is not just weather, but something that in our rational moments we have agreed to stay well away from as maybe civilization or even humanity threatening.

Extreme weather today – the consequence of the build-up of greenhouse gases up until about 1980 – is just the beginning. Climate science has a pretty good understanding of predicted consequences beginning with extreme weather and changing microclimates, through potential triggering of latent feedbacks such as melting permafrost or drying Amazon, etc. leading to differing possible abrupt climate changes such as monsoon failure or other major climate flips or weakening thermohaline circulation, etc., or worst consequence of all, runaway climate change.

The real situation is that government must be forced to do its duty and stop groups who benefit from fossil fuel production today from inflicting grievous injury on innocent victims in the future. Regulating to protect its citizens is a primary duty of government. Given the climate change science, government must stop fossil fuel use, keep fossil fuels in the ground (until they can be used without emissions).

Those who understand the climate danger must recognize that with time lags and gridlocked government, climate change is an emergency and merely warning and informing is not nearly good enough. Change that unblocks for or allows needed emission reduction is possible; at the grassroots and innovation level, change is growing like topsy – but without government action to stop fossil fuel production and use, there will be no promising post-carbon economy, no major change of investment and infrastructure, no needed reconfiguration of our socio-economy. Just more wasted time and wasted opportunity and growing guilt at our inability to do the right thing and kick a habit that threatens all we love and care about.

Climate change is a complex, frustrating subject, an experiment with no precedent. The report is well intentioned, but isn’t the local, temporal focus and its conceptualization of climate change and possible mitigation a form of denial that limits needed action at this crucial time? Why is there no informing debate about this pervasive denial in decision framing and establishment of decision criteria? Besides Dr. Hansen, who has the foresight and leadership to awaken the Obama Administration and America’s science community to this obvious denial so that real action on climate becomes possible?