Mark McCaffrey's picture

Me Worry?

During the panel discussion at the White House Tuesday about the release of the National Climate Assessment (NCA) report, I admitted that what keeps me up late at night is worrying that we haven’t done everything possible to prepare our children for the climate changes that are already happening. What gives me hope is how teachers and students are finding creative ways to learn about and address climate change.

While at the White House, I had a chance to see the behind-the-scenes work that engaged the media and guaranteed that the NCA would get maximum play. An hour after the release there were about 1000 Google news results; 32 hours later, there were over 32,000 results. Many newspapers covered the story on their front pages, above the proverbial fold.

NBC News’ lede was "Nowhere to Hide: Climate Change Will Affect Every Region of the U.S.", and it quoted our own Dr. Minda Berbeco, who helped manage our efforts from NCSE's world HQ in Oakland while I was in DC:

...it's crucial that the adults of tomorrow—who will be forced to contend with the fish-poisoning outbreaks, virus-carrying mosquitoes, chronic water shortages and crop losses—are educated on the climate changes happening today.

"It's not only a multigenerational problem—it's a huge opportunity," she said. "For each of the challenges pointed out in the report, there's an opportunity to work with mitigation and adaptation. This isn't just an adult problem. It's an everyone problem."

Much of the coverage focused on the findings of the report—the potential of four feet of sea level rise by the end of the century along many coasts, more intense precipitation events, and the desiccation of soils and vegetation as temperatures rise 10°F on average. Related stories emphasized how little Americans worry about climate change compared to people in other nations. Megan Thee-Brenan's New York Times piece—"Americans Are Outliers in Views on Climate Change"—cites a Pew Poll that finds only 40% of us consider global climate change a major threat, compared to nations such as South Korea, where the figure is 85%.

Perhaps the NCA report will spur concern, though the doubt-mongers are already at work planting seeds of confusion, claiming that the report is just a political stunt, that a warmer planet is a good thing, that the science is alarmist and if we do anything to address climate change, it will tank the economy. In other words, variations on themes science deniers have used successfully for over two decades to perpetuate the status quo.

Why are Americans so blasé about climate change? Certainly, manufactured doubt has played a role, as has the lack of climate education. And as always, more immediate economic woes clearly trump longer term concerns.

This lack of concern has translated into a lack of political will on the part of constituents to raise the issue with their political representatives. Perhaps the NCA report—and TV shows such as Showtime's Years of Living Dangerously—might turn up the political heat. After all, according to Jon Krosnick’s research, most people (even in the reddest states) accept that climate change is happening and human activities are the driving force.

America is a can-do, hope-for-the-best society. But sometimes hoping for the best is naive at best and outright problematic when risks aren't well considered. Rather than worrying about whether we worry enough about climate change, we should get to work educating ourselves, having conversations, finding out who is already doing what, and taking concrete actions to slow climate change.

In relatively short order we could transform the nation, using the National Climate Assessment and related resources as guides. The NCA is a treasure trove, but we need to develop treasure maps in every community, ideally in every school, to transform society. To make this happen, we need a true public/private partnership to attract the funding and build on the foundation of programs that work.

Besides, taking action beats sitting around worrying, right?