The biggest challenge of the next century is going to be tackling the complications of man-made climate change. Unfortunately, the U.S. political system is dealing with it in the worst possible way. We’ve decided that what is up for debate is the scientific facts behind climate change, or even the idea of science itself. And it’s left us with an unwinnable argument that doesn’t address the problem.
That scientific debate is over, and has been for a while. A new report from the top scientific organizations in the U.S. and the U.K. makes that abundantly clear.
But no recitation of the statistics is going to convince people to suddenly believe in man-made climate change, because this disbelief doesn’t have anything to do with the evidence.
It’s time to stop trying to pound the evidence to convince skeptics, and get to the more important issue: what do we do about it?
Members of the business community who have something at stake are asking that important question–whether it’s the property-insurance industry thinking about future liabilities or a restaurant chain looking ahead to potential scarcity of ingredients — as Chipotle did in its latest annual report, which discussed whether climate change could affect the price of avocados.
Emily Atkin, who wrote about Chipotle’s guacamole, tweeted that the point of the story is to have a conversation “about how climate change can hurt businesses … businesses outright acknowledge in legal documents that they face risk. There’s no denying when real profits are involved.”
Chipotle isn’t the only entity confronting climate change as a practical reality, rather than an abstract scientific debate. Stephanie Garlock reports that mapmakers in Louisiana can’t keep up with the rapid changes in the state’s coastline. What’s true in Louisiana is even more brutally true for independent island nations like the Maldives and Tuvalu, which could leave the map entirely.
Fortunately, there are even voices in the Republican Party and the conservative movement ready to talk seriously about how we respond to climate change. Former Rep. Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican, is an advocate for using a carbon tax to reduce emissions that cause climate change. Steve Chapman took to the pages of the Washington Examiner to try and lay out a conservative case for a carbon tax last month.
Our settlement patterns, agricultural practices and economies are built on a climate that has been stable, within a fairly narrow range, for centuries. The consequences of climate change will require us to do something quite different, likely at great cost. As Dave Roberts put it, “climate change is simple: we do something or we’re screwed.”
“All science can do is identify risks. What we do about them is based on our values,” says Aaron Huertas, the science communication officer for the Union of Concerned Scientists. He thinks we need to move past debating scientific facts, and on to practical policies.
When we talk about the risks of asteroid strikes, we don’t argue about the science. Everyone agrees that a large asteroid hitting the planet would be a bad thing, so policymakers don’t argue about the fact that scientists can’t tell us exactly how many asteroids are out there or exactly when one might hit us.
But when we talk about climate change, which is largely caused by the fossil fuel industry, our attitudes toward large businesses and our beliefs about the role of government in public life have an outsize effect on whether or not we think climate science is valid. At the same time, policymakers are very used to dealing with uncertainty in foreign policy and the creation of economic and monetary policy. So when policymakers point to uncertainty in science to justify inaction, they’re almost always making an excuse, not engaging in a real debate about how to respond to risks.
So what are the risks? Unpredictable weather patterns, including more frequent and more powerful storms. Higher sea levels undermining homes and infrastructure in coastal cities. Changes in what foods we can grow where. Economic and political upheaval as people compete for land, water and resources. These aren’t hypothetical–we’re seeing the leading edge of the change we’ve created already.
We should, of course, weigh these impending risks against the risks of dealing with climate change–which are real: changing our energy usage will shift jobs from some industries to others, and there are obvious costs and disruptions inherent in creating new infrastructure and making lifestyle changes. But we also shouldn’t pretend these costs are optional.
One way or another, we’re going to bear some cost for climate change, and the sooner we start making these practical decisions, the better.
There are a lot of questions surrounding climate change. How much disruption should we take on now to avoid greater disruption later? Who pays for the changes we make? What’s the right balance of preventing climate change and adjusting to it?
But let’s be honest. “Is climate change real?” is not a question worth bothering with anymore.
Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He’s on Twitter as@sethdmichaels.