Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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Will fire and brimstone help in the fight against climate change?

The latest poll shows 70 percent of Americans believe that the climate is changing, compared to 65 percent just a few months back, and up from a low of 52 percent during the record winter snowfalls of 2010. Funny what some record heat and a widening drought will do.

Will fire and brimstone help in the fight against climate change?

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

By Michael Yudell

Leave it to some good ol’ hellfire to get the American public believing again in climate change. According to polling done last week by the University of Texas, 70 percent of Americans now believe that the climate is changing, compared to 65 percent just a few months back, and up from a low of 52 percent during the record winter snowfalls of 2010. These changes, of course, come in the wake of record heat across the United States and a widening drought now afflicting 29 states and covering 61 percent of the continental U.S. With the drought damaging crops and driving grain prices up, food prices are likely to rise in the coming months.

If this isn't enough to alarm even the most hardened climate change denialists among us (who, for the moment, account for just 15 percent of the American public), then how about the fact that the average temperature for the month of June across the continental United States was a full 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average for all of the 20th century? This increase made the 12 months ending in June the warmest stretch since recordkeeping began in 1895.

But here's more: Over the past two decades, winter-time droughts have become increasingly common across the Mediterranean region, a change that cannot be explained by natural variability alone; the earth is warming faster than previous models had predicted, the planet’s 10 warmest years have occurred since 1998, and 2012 is likely to be the hottest on record; and, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, 2012 in the Arctic saw the “largest June ice loss in the satellite record.”

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So, will the seeming shift in American public opinion, fickle as it may be, lead to renewed vigor on the part of President Obama and other world leaders to save the planet for our children and our children’s children? If the Obama administration’s record on climate change is any indication, then the answer for now is likely to be no.

To be fair, the current administration has made minor yet significant progress. More efficient fuel economy standards are set to reduce oil consumption and greenhouse gas emissions for new vehicles. Plus, investment in alternative energy sources may someday wean us off our addiction to oil and other fossil fuels. The White House has even convened a Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, whose mission is to provide “recommendations on how Federal policies, programs, and planning efforts can better prepare the United States for climate change.” While I understand the need for such recommendations, I receive little comfort from them given the glacial pace (a phrase whose meaning is surely changing given retreating glaciers) of the broader federal effort to slow warming’s effects.

The president himself has had little to say on climate change, and, according to a Brown University study, has instead begun speaking in terms of “energy independence” and “clean energy.” As Maxwell T. Boykoff at the University of Colorado at Boulder pointed out recently, with such a shift “we wind up missing a thorough understanding of the breadth of the problem and the range of possible solutions.” Boykoff reminds us that “the way we talk about the problem affects how we deal with it.” “And though some new wording may deflect political heat, it can’t alter the fact that, 'climate change' or not, the climate is changing,” he concludes.

In terms of leadership, the president has been a failure on this issue, both domestically and globally. James Hansen, head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA and one of the world’s leading climate scientists, agrees. "President Obama speaks of a 'planet in peril,'” Hansen wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed, "but he does not provide the leadership needed to change the world’s course."

It’s hard not to feel indignant at the negligence of the U.S. government to take real action on this issue, to be furious at the failure of the news media to report on our changing climate, and to feel exasperated at the failure of regular people, you and me, to do something about it.

So what can we do? Well, for one, we can keep talking about humanity’s impact on the changing climate regardless of last week’s heat wave, the current drought, or a snowy winter. Writing letters to the editor demanding coverage of the human and ecological impacts of climate change can make a difference. Call, write, or e-mail your elected representatives, too.

Last week in The Daily Beast, Mark Hertsgaard framed the problem as one of parents needing to protect their children. He’s helped organize a group called Climate Parents, and calls on parents to come together to “get politically active, employing the only language politicians respect: removing them from office if they don’t serve the public good.” Parents can address climate change first “by changing their family’s consumption patterns,” says Hertsgaard, recognizing that such changes, while limited in their overall impact, “make us think about how our individual actions affect our collective future.” More importantly, he writes, parents must agitate to change “the government policies and corporate practices that push greenhouse-gas emissions ever higher.”

Write and demand action from President Obama or, if you prefer, Mitt Romney (himself once a champion of action to combat climate change). If 70 percent of the public believes that climate change is occurring, that's a pretty persuasive force for any politician of any party. The trick, however, is not just to believe it but to do something about it. Our collective futures – our kids' futures – are up to us.


Read more about The Public's Health.

About this blog

What is public health — and why does it matter?

Through prevention, education, and intervention, public health practitioners - epidemiologists, health policy experts, municipal workers, environmental health scientists - work to keep us healthy.

It’s not always easy. Michael Yudell, Jonathan Purtle, and other contributors tell you why.

Michael Yudell, PhD, MPH Associate Professor, Drexel University School of Public Health
Jonathan Purtle, DrPH, MPH Research Director, Drexel Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice
Janet Golden, PhD Professor of history, Rutgers University-Camden
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