Why Even the God-Fearing Should Believe It’s Up to Us to Halt Climate Change

September 10, 2017

God’s creation is on the brink of destruction, potentially at biblical proportions. Scientists say we have as little as three years to stabilize the climate or risk environmental catastrophe. Others say that climate change is already upon us, contributing to flooding that reached ‘unprecedented’ levels in Bangladesh, Nepal, India and now Texas this year.

Some people believe that it’s beyond our power to harm the climate, and even if we could, God would intervene before climate change destroys our world.

There is scant hard evidence though that a divine being participates so directly in human affairs, at least in modern times. Human misery caused by natural disasters, civil wars and genocide seem to go unchecked by Providence. 1.4 billion people are expected to lose their homes by 2060, largely due to rising seas. Most of these people will feel as if their world has been destroyed. If God did not stop these previous tragedies, why do we expect Him to intervene now?

I believe in an inspirational God, rather than an interventionist one. This means turning to God for guidance on how to live life with a higher purpose. This also means taking action to fulfill this calling with the tools at our disposal. As the parable goes, when God sends a canoe, a motorboat and a helicopter to pull us from the flood, He is not ignoring our calls for help, but rather answering our prayers — by providing us with the means to help ourselves.

Like with other natural disasters, God is not going to swoop down and halt climate change. Instead, we must be inspired by a higher purpose — saving the planet for future generations — to do so ourselves. This means eliminating our carbon footprint, and convincing others to do the same. We already have the tools and technologies to do this. Instead of canoes, motorboats and helicopters, we have renewable energy, electric cars and building insulation. It’s time for all of us to act.

–Originally published on Medium, 2017

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How to be a trusted messenger on climate change

September 10, 2017

A recent study indicates that only 40 percent of Americans believe that they will be harmed personally by climate change. Instead, most of us view climate change as a phenomenon that will affect people in another region or a future generation.

Such detachment makes it challenging to motivate meaningful action to reduce climate change. Generally speaking, we are more inclined to act if we believed our personal well-being is threatened.

Such beliefs are not all that surprising, though, as most of us go about our daily lives insulated from changes that are happening in the natural world.

And, when we do experience Mother Nature’s wrath, we have a hard time telling whether human beings bear some of the blame. This is especially true when effects are transient. On one day, temperatures may set a record. On the next day, they swing back to within seasonal norms.

Even extreme weather isn’t persuasive. Because storms are so familiar to us, we tend to discount evidence that climate change is increasing their intensity and frequency. Moreover, the passage of time makes it all but impossible for us to objectively compare any two events. And when we try, our memories easily can fool us, as it’s easy to exaggerate past events in our minds — extreme weather included. Remember, the fish grows bigger every time a fish story is told.

The local angle

Unbeknownst to most of us, however, climate change is already affecting our lives and our local communities. This impact tends to vary greatly by person and by region. Some of us have experienced only minor inconveniences, while others have seen our income, health or way of life compromised.

Here are a few examples:

  • In Florida and along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard, drivers often find coastal roads not passable because king tides flood them even on sunny days.
  • From Minnesota to Maine, moose hunters find the number of permits halved as populations decline. Warmer winters compromise moose survival by allowing ticks to gorge unchecked on their blood.
  • In the Upper Midwest, allergies sufferers contend with allergy seasons that are lasting a month longer than before.
  • In the Carolinas, commercial fishermen must steam hundreds of miles farther to catch local fish that have migrated north seeking cooler waters.
  • In Alaska, homeowners find their foundations are no longer stable but tilting and collapsing as the underlying permafrost melts.
  • In Louisiana, coastal property owners find their land no longer livable, but instead continuously flooded as sea levels rise. Now, residents are relocating to higher ground.
  • In Montana, anglers no longer find trout at familiar places along the river, but upstream in cooler headwaters. Local guides lose money when streams are closed because warmer water temperatures put too much stress on the fish that remain.
  • From New Jersey to Florida, home prices in flood-prone areas have fallen as flood insurance premiums rise. Investors across the country buy mortgage-backed securities that do not price in the risk that rising seas pose to coastal property values.

Despite these impact, many of us are not aware of their connection to climate change. Communicators have an opportunity to make that connection, and by doing so, motivate action to reduce climate change’s impact. Here are three ways how:

Local impact. Climate change already has caused harm to people in many local communities. Some recognize the impact, while others only sense that something has changed. Most do not yet attribute what is happening to a changing climate. Communicators have the opportunity to engage people about climate impact, particularly those living in affected areas. One way to do so is to contrast how things were before with how they are now, and explain the role that the climate has had in making this change happen.

Trusted messengers. Climate change clearly has become a politicized issue. One way to overcome this is to tap messengers that are trusted across the political divide. For example, when it comes to the impact of climate change on human health, primary care physicians (PDF) enjoy significant public trust regardless of someone’s personal beliefs on the issue. Arguably, local guides, fishermen and others in the community whose livelihoods have been affected by climate change would make compelling messengers, too.

Broad storytelling. People who have been personally affected by climate change have a story to tell. Communicators should encourage everyone to share their stories on social media (tweet every time you witness climate change impact) or with neighbors. The more that we document the harm that climate change is having in our communities, the more compelling the message will be to those still on the fence.

Today, many of us have been personally harmed by climate change, although we might not recognize the cause. Communicators can best engage people if they focus on the impact that it has had in our local communities, and do so through a trusted messenger that transcends the political divide.

–Originally published on Greenbiz, 2017


For the tourism industry, there’s no vacation from climate change

September 10, 2017

Vacations are supposed to be spent in paradise — on sun-kissed beaches with palm trees gently swaying overhead and clear blue waters that extend to the horizon. This is a narrative (PDF) that many tourists have come to believe — and that industry marketers have nurtured in their advertising.

But climate change is making it harder for resort owners and tour operators to make good on this promise. Climate change is having more of an impact on tourist destinations by eroding beaches and bleaching coral reefs. Mountain destinations are not immune either, as a warming climate melts glaciers and snow pack.

The latest bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef has again brought to the forefront the growing impact of climate change on tourist destinations. According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, warmer than usual waters have caused bleaching (PDF) along much of the reef, and have killed nearly a quarter of its coral.

Such an extreme event not only degrades the reef, but can lead to the collapse of the ecosystem as fish and other aquatic life forms move on to find other sources of food and shelter. Making matters worse, these events are expected to occur more frequently going forward, which will leave less time for the reef to recover between events.

Observed Coral Mortality

This type of climate impact can be devastating for the local economy, too. The Great Barrier Reef directly supports69,000 jobs in reef tourism and fishing, and contributes more than AUS $6 billion to the Australian economy each year. The reef is also a national treasure of Australia and the reason that many tourists travel to this far-off continent in the first place.

Over the last 40 years there have been eight significant coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef caused by higher than normal water temperatures. Historically, the Australian tourism industry has tiptoed lightly around the issue of climate change. While many tour operators have borne witness to past bleaching events, they have hesitated to raise their concerns with sympathetic politicians or the press, fearing that any negative publicity would scare away tourists — and profits — in the near term.

It is not surprising then that with the latest bleaching event, the local tourism industry association in Queensland immediately sought to downplay the impact. The Australian government went one step further and had the United Nations actually remove a chapter from the U.N.’s latest climate change report that discussed impact to the reef.

Faced with the worst bleaching on record, tour operators found themselves with few viable options. They could simply ignore it and continue to market to tourists as if nothing had happened. In fact, studies suggest that some tourists would not even notice that conditions materially had changed because they do not have the context to know otherwise. For them, diving on a less-than-pristine reef would be fine as long as conditions exceeded a minimum threshold for seeing fish and other aquatic life.

Alternatively, tour operators could try to adapt to their new reality. For example, they could shift dives to deeper waters that tend to remain cooler and less susceptible to bleaching. But, adaption may be only a temporary solution at best, as bleaching is expected to become an annual occurrence by 2030 without a significant global reduction in carbon emissions.

Organize to fight an existential threat

This time, with the bleaching too devastating and the industry outlook too grim, tour operators were compelled to take a stand. Climate change had become an “existential threat” to the reef and to their livelihood. Instead of remaining silent as they had done in the past, 175 tour operators banded together to urge governmental action to address the underlying cause of the bleaching: greenhouse gases emissions warming the planet.

Tour operators did not just go public with their concerns; they took an aggressive stance against one of Australia’s other leading industries, big coal. They demanded that the government withhold financing and investment support for the proposed Carmichael coal mine, which, if opened, would be the largest coal mine in Australia. They also demanded that new coal mines be disallowed. As Australia is the third largest coal producing country in the world, these demands provide a direct challenge to the status quo and a competing vision for the future.

While it is too early to know how successful these tour operators will be in halting new coal mines from opening, such collective action marks an important step forward in the fight for the long-term survival of the reef.

Reframe the prevailing narrative

While tour operators feel embolden to take on big coal, there is little to suggest that they are ready to challenge the status quo with tourists. Today, many tourists favor vacation destinations that are picture perfect (PDF). Climate change, however, makes it increasingly difficult for tour operators to meet such lofty expectations.

The recent bleaching is a great example. In response, local tourism officials have sought to downplay negative news about the reef. But press coverage already has been so widespread that this would be nearly impossible to do.

Moreover, returning travelers are sharing stories with prospective travelers on social media and travel sites such as Trip Advisor. The upcoming premiere of Disney’s “Finding Dory,” the long-awaited sequel to “Finding Nemo,” inevitably will invite the press to draw comparison between the vibrant Great Barrier Reef portrayed in these movies and the existing state of the reef today.

NOAA

Potential bleaching and mortality across global oceans in 2016.

Alert Level 1 means bleaching is likely; Alert level 2 means mortality likely; NOAA Coral Reef Watch, February-May 2016.

 

Given all of this, the best response by the tourist industry may be to have a direct and open conversation with prospective tourists about the conditions on the reef, while stressing the importance and excitement of seeing it even if it is still recovering from the bleaching. As part of this exchange, the industry also can start to change the prevailing narrative about what makes a perfect vacation. Conditions may not be pristine on the reef, but seeing an adaptive environment — recovering from the effects of a climate change event — is still worth the experience.

Tour operators may be concerned that such an honest conversation simply will motivate tourists to book a dive vacation elsewhere. Sadly, the bleaching of this reef is not an isolated phenomenon. Coral bleaching and mortality is expected to be widespread across the globe this year, leaving fewer pristine reefs to choose from.

An honest dialogue may be the best way to attract tourists to the reef, while at the same time start to unwind the prevailing narrative that the best vacation destinations have to be picture perfect.

–Originally published on Greenbiz, 2016


Can Hollywood save us from climate catastrophe?

September 10, 2017

By taking on the link between football and brain injuries, the recently released movie “Concussion” reminds us of the potential for Hollywood to shape attitudes and beliefs about controversial topics through entertainment.

The film has put America’s most popular sport under a microscope and sparked a dialogue about children participating in contact sports and the role of the National Football League in preventing injuries to its players.

Certainly, there is the potential for a similar movie to be made about climate change — one that builds on “An Inconvenient Truth” and speaks to a new generation.

Perhaps it’s a film about a whistleblower who stands up to oil company executives, who have known since the 1970s that burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming. Such a movie would confront head-on the impact that our car culture is having on global warming.

But movie dramas that directly tackle a controversial topic might not actually be the best way to appeal to a broader audience. While lackluster box office receipts for “Concussion” simply might reflect a crowded field, it also may reflect a public reticent to confront a controversy that taints a beloved sport, especially one so core to our identity as Americans.

Apocalypse now

While a similar claim could be made about “An Inconvenient Truth,” this may not be a universal truth about climate change movies in general.  In fact, one could argue that Hollywood has had more success in tackling climate change as an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic story.

“The Day After Tomorrow,” a movie where ice sheet melting shuts down thermohaline circulation in the oceans, resulting in the rapid onset of a new ice age, was the No. 9 highest-grossing disaster movie of all time. “Waterworld,” where humanity is forced to live on water when melting ice caps raise sea levels high enough to flood all land, was the 11th highest grossing “post-apocalypse” movie (adjusted for 2015 dollars).

Such movies are not made without criticism, given the artistic license taken to tell such doomsday stories.

Some from the scientific community argue that interjecting Hollywood into the climate debate may be a bad thing, as it could further blur the lines between fact and fiction, especially with a public that remains skeptical of science.

But, with a public that holds views on climate change that largely align with political affiliation, Hollywood might offer a rare opportunity to cut across these lines with a message that is both entertaining and eye-opening. Indeed, there is already evidence that movies such as “The Day After Tomorrow” can change consumer attitudes and beliefs about climate change.

According to a study (PDF) conducted by Anthony Leiserowitz at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, viewing “The Day After Tomorrow” increased movie watcher “concern” and “worry” over climate change. Not only did movie watchers say they were more likely to purchase a fuel efficient car and share their concerns with politicians, but they were also more willing to talk about global warming with their friends and family, reflecting the increased importance that movie watchers placed on this issue.

Flipping the script

Given the past financial success of such doomsday stories, one might think that moviemakers would be clamoring for new scripts. Today, there is increasing awareness of climate change impact among Americans, especially given the extreme weather events occurring across the U.S. as a result of a usually strong El Niño this year.

This type of script would be especially appealing to Millennials, who are especially passionate about this issue and remain a coveted target audience for studios.

As scientists learn more about the potential impacts of climate change, more stories are emerging that easily could be spun to read like nightmarish sci-fi movies. Here are a few examples:

  • Ancient bacteria brought back to life as glacier ice melts cause pandemic
  • Global food stocks collapse from widespread drought, ocean acidification that dissolves shellfish and the spread of neurotoxins in fish, unraveling social order and leading to war, or worse, nuclear confrontation
  • Rising temperatures shut down photosynthesis by phytoplankton, the source of most breathable oxygen on earth, suffocating all life

In the “Terminator” movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger saved humankind from apocalypse by traveling back in time to change the course of human history before it was too late.

Perhaps when it comes to climate change, Hollywood can inspire humanity to save itself the first time around so it doesn’t have to rely on time travel as a last-ditch effort.

— Originally published on Greenbiz, 2016


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