Climate 411

The Boring Side of Climate is More Tangible to Most

(Originally posted yesterday on EDF Voices)

A college professor friend of mine once decided to write the least sexy book possible. Lots of academics were trying to be as edgy or trendy and, in keeping with his contrarian personality, he chose to write about insurance in American literature. Those of us working to communicate the impacts of climate change might do well to follow his example.

Environmental groups, including EDF, often focus on the drama of climate change. We do it because we’re already seeing some scary changes in the weather – from severe drought to stronger storms – and because it’s important to give the public a vivid picture of what’s happening. But there are limits to that approach. For example, people who are resistant to a message about global warming, or just not interested, will tune out such information, no matter how dramatic the presentation.

Many people don’t feel an urgency about climate change because it is such a big and remote issue. Something that is “global” necessarily feels distant. Problems that play out over decades and centuries, that involve predictions about the year 2100, are just not relevant to most people. But the truth is that climate change is starting to touch those everyday, boring things that people do care about – like insurance rates and taxes and property values.

Climate affects your 401K and other boring things

Now, boring is not generally a useful attribute in communications. But there are exceptions. You probably take a great interest in such dry and tedious matters as your 401(k) statement,  your property tax bill, or changes to the escrow on your mortgage payment. Why? Because they affect your bank account. And it may be that the best way to reach some people is to let them know that climate change, too, is doing just that.

For example, many New York area residents whose homes were severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy have already seen a 25% premium increase from the National Flood Insurance Program. The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that thousands of residents there will face a choice of relocating or seeing increases in their insurance bill of $15,000 to $25,000.  And the business group CERES questions whether the insurance industry as a whole is prepared for the financial impacts of climate change.

This is an issue that re-insurance giant Munich Re has been studying for some time.  (If there’s something more boring than insurance, it’s re-insurance.  These are the companies that, essentially, insure the insurance companies against their risks and payouts.)  The company sees that warming oceans and higher sea levels are causing stronger storms and bigger surges of water around the globe – which, in turn, causes greater destruction of property and bigger insurance claims. So Munich Re has reasonably concluded that climate change will affect its bottom line. Which means that it will affect your bottom line, as well.

The non-environmentalist would rather save on their grocery bill than save polar bears

Of course, the effects of climate change are not limited to insurance rates. Municipal budgets have to absorb the cost of infrastructure changes, and recovery costs, associated with extreme weather.  Food prices are affected by crop losses due to record droughts.  And all of these costs get spread through the economy as the federal government pays for storm damage and recovery, and insurance and food costs are passed along to every one of us. These are issues that hit home to all those voters who don’t spend ten seconds a year thinking about the fate of polar bears.

It’s our job in the environmental community to open up a line of communication with these people.  We need to lay out the boring facts and make the boring case.  Let’s show those Americans not yet interested in climate change it is going to hit them in the wallet – whether or not they’re interested in the issue.  And by acting together, now, we can all save a lot of money…and, as a bonus, our grandchildren will get a healthier and safer world.

Posted in Economics, Policy / Comments are closed

It's the Demographics, Stupid: Why the Political Future Looks Good for Environmentalism

(Originally posted yesterday on EDF Voices)

Image by Propaganda Times

Political strategists not only want to know what The People think today, but where they are headed.  In the short term, that might mean understanding that an issue that’s popular right now – perhaps because of something in the news – might become unpopular by Election Day.  In the longer term, strategists need to understand demographic and political trends so that their party doesn’t get left behind.

The question of immigration reform is a good example. Both parties see that Latinos are a fast growing segment of the population. So it is obviously very important, in order to win future elections, to be attractive to these voters. That has led to the bi-partisan, self-interested push to achieve immigration reform, which is a high priority for many Hispanic-Americans.

What is true of ethnic population growth is also true when it comes to the inexorable aging of every individual voter. If people born before World War II mostly hold one view and people born after 1980 mostly hold the opposite view, a smart political strategist will align his party with the latter position. Why? Because the younger people will be voting for many more decades than their grandparents. This phenomenon is an important element in the fast changing politics of gay marriage.  As this Washington Post analysis shows, young people are far more supportive of gay marriage, so it’s a long-term political problem (nationally) for those who are opposed.

Politicians are beginning to understand that the same variables come into play with climate change. According to polling by the PEW Center, more than 70% of Americans already believe the climate is changing. But on the more contentious question of whether greenhouse gas pollution is causing that change, there is a dramatic generational divide. Only 28% of voters over 65 accept the scientific consensus that these emissions are warming the Earth, but close to 50% of those under 50 accept it. That means that support for policies to limit greenhouse pollution will only grow in the years ahead. (And there is no reason to believe that young voters will change their minds about this scientific question as they get older.)

Based on data from the PEW Research Center

Some strategists will argue that despite the growing support for climate action, not enough people consider it a “voting issue” – something citizens use to determine which candidate to support.  Still, a candidate’s view on this issue, as for gay marriage, can be a signal to voters about their broader political profile. For example, while gay marriage doesn’t have a direct impact on a majority of voters, younger people may see opposition to it as a signal that a candidate is intolerant. Similarly, voters born after 1985 — who have never experienced a colder than average month — may regard a politician who denies  the scientific evidence of climate change as out of touch.

This doesn’t mean supporters of climate action can relax because a demographic wave is coming to save us. Population changes come slowly and the scientific evidence suggests global warming is advancing rapidly. If we wait on population trends to save us, things will get a lot worse and more expensive to fix before they get better. So we need to continue to push for action, and hope the pundits and strategists see which way the political winds are blowing.

Posted in Policy / Comments are closed

Executive Action Critical, but not Enough to Fight Global Warming

(This blog was first posted on EDF Voices)

Image: Chuck Kennedy/White House

I received the following comment about Part 1 of this series that warrants its own blog post.

The politics of climate change is an issue The Nation has covered extensively, and I think many of our readers would wonder why Mr. Gaby, in asserting that Congressional legislation is the only means of taking serious federal action against climate change, ignores the argument (put forth by the Center for Biological Diversity, among others) that President Obama and his EPA Administrator already have the authority under the Clean Air Act to order dramatic reductions in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Congress is one way; it is hardly the only way. And since Congress is now blocked by right-wing intransigence, and since the hour (as Mr. Gaby notes) is already very late, surely it behooves us to deploy a readier tool, no?  —  Mark Hertsgaard, environment correspondent for The Nation magazine and  author of numerous books about climate change, including HOT:  Living Through the Next Fifty Years on EarthMr. Hertsgaard is also a Fellow of the New America Foundation.

My response:

Because Congress failed to pass comprehensive climate legislation in 2010, and prospects for action in the current Congress are remote, many environmentalists have been focused on steps President Obama can take on his own. And it is true that the President has authority under the Clean Air Act to take significant action to limit greenhouse gas emissions. But while these steps are both necessary and critically important, they do not let Congress off the hook in the long run.

Why? To borrow a line from the 2012 campaign, it’s simple math.

The World Resources Institute recently studied the impact of actions the EPA could take under existing law. In Goldilocks style, they laid out three scenarios – lackluster, middle-of-the-road, and go-getter – based on the aggressiveness of EPA’s approach. Unlike the home-invading blonde of the fairy tale, WRI recommends the most aggressive approach, which would reduce emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. That’s the same level of reductions that would have been achieved by the failed congressional legislation. What’s more, this path would result in a 40% reduction in pollution by 2050.

So what’s the problem?  Well, a 40% reduction is only half of what we need to achieve to avert the worst impacts. In other words, we can’t get to a safe climate from here without action by Congress, even under the most aggressive scenario of executive action. As WRI says, “New federal legislation will eventually be needed, because even go-getter action by federal and state governments will probably fail to achieve the more than 80 percent GHG emissions reductions necessary to fend off the most deleterious impacts of climate change.”

Without that level of commitment, we also won’t see other countries achieve the reductions necessary. While about one-third of the world’s economic output is technically covered by some form of greenhouse gas emissions limit, these rules are far from enough to solve the problem. And while growth-hungry nations in Asia are starting to take steps on climate change, they will likely insist on bold action by the United States before moving as aggressively as is necessary.

The most important short term domestic priority for environmentalists should be ensuring that EPA carries out its obligations under the Clean Air Act*. That would cut billions of tons of pollution and buy us critical time in the fight against climate change. But if we are to prevent the worst impacts of artificially altering the Earth’s natural systems, we need Congress to eventually accept its responsibility to protect the nation.

*EDF economist Gernot Wagner has more details on executive actions President Obama can take to tackle climate change.

Posted in Climate Change Legislation, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, News, Policy / Comments are closed

Republicans vs. Democrats: Why Washington is Stuck on Climate Change (Part 2)

(This blog was first posted on EDF Voices)

Image by DonkeyHotey/Flickr

Look at the polls: Twice as many Democrats as Republicans say that most scientists agree that climate change is occurring. But why don't conservatives believe in climate change? For some progressives, the answer is easy: Republicans are dumb or backwards or fooling themselves. They may feel the same about me, since I don’t think it ever makes sense to write off a hundred million of your fellow Americans as fools for disagreeing with you.

It is certainly true that partisanship drives a lot of the opposition. President Obama is for it, so they are against it. Al Gore is the face of climate change, so it must be wrong. That’s an irrational approach to any issue, but it is something we all do. Democrats should try this thought experiment: If Dick Cheney were promoting an issue, calling on Americans to make it a national priority and touring the country with a fact-filled slide show, would you be willing to agree with him?

Gallup Poll

You might say it would depend on the facts he was presenting, but if I honestly ask myself the question, I know it would be very hard for me to stand on his side.

Or look at the issue of missile defense. There may be plenty of reasons to be skeptical of missile defense, but for most progressives who don’t follow the issue closely (like me), I think our opposition is rooted in the fact that President Reagan first promoted it.

Progressive are no more interested in having their cities bombed than Republicans are in having them flooded, and very few non-experts on either side really understand the complex science of either issue. But we have taken our cues from the leaders we trust, and instinctively oppose those with whom we generally disagree. (Just to be clear, I’m not arguing the relative merits of missile defense and climate action. My point is simply that tribalism and partisanship tends to color our judgment.)

So it makes sense that conservatives would start out as skeptical toward climate change. But once every major scientific organization has concluded the science is right, shouldn't they get past that? After all, the consensus view of climate science has been endorsed by the august and stodgy National Academy of Sciences, which President George W. Bush called the “gold standard” of scientific inquiry.

It may be that a more important reason many conservatives are reluctant to accept the science of global warming is that the solutions worry them. Addressing the problem will require national policies (and international cooperation) that shift our economy towards clean energy, and the GOP generally wants less, not more, government. So conservatives are going to demand very strong evidence that the problem is real and dangerous.

Still, I believe that for most conservatives, the bar of proof is not set infinitely high. When they see a real, dangerous threat, they get behind government action. For example, Republicans support the Centers for Disease Control’s work to fight epidemic diseases and FBI efforts against organized crime. Similarly, once conservatives are convinced that climate change threatens our way of life, they will support policies to address the problem. Their solutions may be different from EDF’s, but that’s a debate the nation would benefit from having.

Next time: How to build a constructive conversation between progressives and conservatives on climate change.

Posted in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Policy / Read 1 Response

If You Can’t Stand the Heat: Why Washington is Stuck on Climate Change (Part 1)

(This blog was first posted today on EDF Voices)

Image by Vinoth Chandar/Flickr

There is no point in being coy about this: The issue of climate change is polarized along partisan and ideological lines.

Democrats and progressives think it is a dangerous threat to the world. Most Republicans and conservatives think the threat is exaggerated, or doesn’t exist at all. The divide among politicians is even more striking – less than a third of Republicans in Congress responding to a 2011 National Journal survey said climate change is causing the Earth to warm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Against this political backdrop, many critics say that groups like EDF, which  seek to start a dialogue with conservatives on the issue, are  naive.  No conciliatory language, no middle-ground proposals, they say, will draw more than a few Republican votes in Congress. Conservative members of Congress will simply vote against us once Rush Limbaugh starts railing against the global warming "hoax".

It’s a reasonable argument, but I think it misses an essential point: It may be hard to pass climate change legislation by working with conservatives, but it will be nearly impossible to do so without them. In fact, no major environmental law has ever been passed without large bi-partisan majorities.  The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments all passed with lots of votes from both major parties.

No important legislation can become law without sixty votes in the Senate.  And I think you will search in vain for a respected political analyst who thinks there will be sixty progressive, pro-environment senators any time soon.  On an issue that doesn’t allow for the long game – as the atmosphere loads with greenhouse gases and the ice caps melt – we can’t wait decades for that super-majority to appear.

That leaves us two choices: act without Congress, or open a conversation with conservatives and move towards an approach that can get widespread support.  President Obama has already used his executive powers to limit greenhouses gases, including a clean cars rule and proposed standards for new power plants. We hope he will soon add pollution limits for existing power plants and policies to limit methane leakage from natural gas production.

All of that, along with actions by states like California's AB 32, will be an important down payment on what we need to do. But in the long run it won’t be nearly enough to prevent the worst impacts of climate change.  Nothing short of a comprehensive solution to shift America to cleaner energy, and lead the world that way, will suffice.  And that means Congressional action.

Next: Why do many conservatives reject the consensus of scientists on climate change?

Posted in News, Policy / Comments are closed

Sequestration – What It Means For You, What It Means for Planet Earth

Now that the automatic spending cuts known as “sequestration” are here, we’re getting a clearer look at what it will mean for our environment. In these economic times, budget cuts are a fact of life. But these non-targeted, across-the-board cuts are likely to have real consequences for our environment:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will have to cut the funding it gives states to monitor their air quality.
  • EPA says it will likely have to shut down some critical air monitoring sites that check for dangerous pollutants like ozone and particulate matter.
  • EPA also says it will have to reduce the number of “environmental cops on the beat” – the people who monitor compliance with our environmental laws. They estimate they’ll do 1,000 fewer inspections this year. That means more polluters will get away with putting our health at risk.
  • Funding that was given to communities to repair or replace decaying water and wastewater infrastructure will be cut. That puts your local safe drinking water at risk.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will have to cut grants for state and local firefighters and other emergency management personnel. That will make it harder to respond to the next hurricane, tornado, or other weather disaster – at a time when those weather disasters are intensifying because of climate change.
  • The Agriculture Department says it will treat as many as 200,000 fewer acres for hazardous fuel because of budget cuts. That means a higher risk of wildfires.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will delay the launch of two new satellites that are designed to track severe weather events like hurricanes and tornadoes.
  • NOAA will also cut back on maintenance and operations of some its other weather systems — including the national radar system that’s used for tornado warnings. The Secretary of Commerce, who oversees NOAA, warned that sequestration will: 

significantly increas[e] forecast error and, the government's ability to warn Americans across the country about high impact weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes, will be compromised.

  • NOAA will also have to reduce the surveying that goes into nautical charts, which would put navigation – and the millions of dollars of commerce that depends on it – at risk.
  • Sequestration may force national parks across the country to close, or to operate with shorter hours. Reports say Yellowstone may open three weeks late to save money on snow plowing.
  • Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the reopening of the Statue of Liberty after Hurricane Sandy will likely be delayed.
  • Salazar and the head of the Park Service, Jonathan Jarvis, say sequestration will cut into their ability to staff national parks, fight fires, and clean up after winter storms.
  • Sequestration will force reductions in funding for fishery stock assessments, which will jeopardize our ability to open economically vital fisheries from the Gulf Coast to Alaska.
  • Sequestration also means fewer people to enforce laws against overfishing. The Commerce Department says they may have to compensate with smaller quotas or early closure to the fishing season.

All of the above examples are from memos written by agency heads to Congressional leaders about the potential effects of sequestration. There will undoubtedly be other effects – and we don’t know what they’ll be.

Of course, today’s budget issues pale in comparison to the financial disasters that loom ahead of us  – the amount we'll have to spend to recover from stronger storms, droughts, and other extreme weather as climate change accelerates.

We're leaving our kids a huge bill to pay.

Posted in News, Policy / Read 1 Response