A climate narrative

A call for a more expansive, community-focused approach to dealing with climate change

Learn more:
Go to www.ipcc.ch to learn more about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

On Nov. 8, one of the strongest typhoons in history, with winds topping 175 miles an hour, hit the Philippines, and on Nov. 17, massive tornadoes touched down in the American Midwest. These extreme weather events followed on the heels of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which reaffirmed its previous predictions that by the end of the century, summers will be hotter and sea levels higher, with more extreme weather events to come.

The predictions of the IPPC are, it seems, being borne out.

For a recent Chico News & Review Greenways feature (see “‘Climate shifts,’” Oct. 24), writer Evan Tuchinsky interviewed two local environmentalists—Chico State professors Mark Stemen and Jim Pushnik—about findings of the IPPC’s latest report. Both agreed we needed to give those findings close attention.

However, the panel struggled with how to account for two anomalies in its predictions of an ever-warming planet. First, there has been a slowing in the rise of the Earth’s temperatures since 1998. Second, Arctic sea ice actually grew in 2013, instead of shrinking, as the models predicted.

These “factoids” gave skeptics ammunition. But as climate scientist Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, explained in a recent interview with GlobalPost reporter Solana Pyne, such quirks (stable temperature periods or slight reverses in the buildup of sea ice) are to be expected. As Mayewski said, the time for climate skepticism is over. The skeptics are “trying to provide misinformation,” take things out of context, and make climate change “a political issue, which it is not. They are not basing their arguments at all on the science.”

In reaffirming its predictions about climate change, the IPCC increased its level of certainty from 90 percent to 95 percent that it was “extremely likely” that human activities are responsible for the dire changes to come.

Why then, given all the evidence, do so many people fail to act to reduce the risks of climate change?

The reason people don’t act lies not in the facts, but in the way the facts are presented. The story that disaster is at hand if we don’t reduce our carbon—or greenhouse-gas (GHG)— emissions right now is not working. Today’s climate narrative falls short, for four fundamental reasons: It doesn’t sufficiently explain how the world actually works; it discounts human needs; it discounts human creativity and resilience; and it’s not an empowering narrative.

First of all, climate scientists are struggling to keep the message—that we caused the problem and must limit carbon emissions now—simple, so the general public can be convinced action is essential. But having a single explanation for climate change requires that this explanation account for every disparity and change in the weather. Climate change is, in fact, way too complex for only one thing (humans, for example) to “cause” it or for exact predictions about what will happen. The National Weather Service can issue a tornado warning, but can’t tell you exactly where the tornado will touch down—though it can tell you to seek shelter. A relevant climate narrative, thus, should focus on what we can do to protect our safety—and that will take more than driving a Prius.

Second, the current climate narrative leaves out a number of human needs. While climate change is an existential threat to humans, it is not the only one. Global inequalities in wealth and income, war, and poor health are equally important. To address the problem of climate change, we must address global habits of consumption, population growth, and the fact that billions of humans will need access to cheap, reliable and sustainable energy. You can’t solve the climate problem in one fell swoop by focusing on just one part of the problem—reducing GHGs—in an interconnected world. The human needs of security, education and health must be met at the same time that we focus on GHG reductions.

Third, we need to plan for adaptation to climate change. We need to accept the fact that the Earth will undergo profound changes in the coming decades in ways that we do not yet fully understand. We need to plan for the unknown and plan for resilience. As Rafe Sagarin, a marine biologist and author of Learning from the Octopus, said in a recent talk in Missoula, Mont., “Nature has been dealing with uncertainty for 3.5 billion years. Species adapt by leaving or being forced out of their comfort zone. If they don’t adapt, they go extinct.” The message needs to be: We are here to stay!

Finally, the current narrative of climate science often focuses on some future, fearful crisis. Verlyn Klinkenborg, a New York Times editor, has described climate change as “a rolling apocalypse, working its way, unequally, differentially, from place to place.” But end-of-the-world scenarios are disempowering because they imply that whatever we do, it won’t work. We need, rather, narratives that break our problems down into ones that can be solved.

We need a story that focuses on our abilities to solve problems, and to build stronger communities. We must tell a story that deals with both our unsustainable global footprint and how to meet basic human needs. People demand and need economic security, justice and equity. We must use these human needs as the framework for addressing climate change, and focus on how we can create societies in which social-safety nets and seawalls work together to build a sustainable future.

Environmental advocate Bill McKibben, speaking at a conference at Wes Jackson’s Land Institute in Salina, Kan., was asked, “What can we do?”

His response was: “Live anywhere there is a strong community,” and “You will find such strong communities by creating them.” That is the story we need to tell.

Scott McNall is the former executive director of Chico State University’s Institute for Sustainable Development; he is currently an affiliated faculty member at the University of Montana. George Basile is a professor in the School of Sustainability and senior sustainability scientist at the Global Institute for Sustainability at Arizona State University.