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What will it take for policy makers and the public finally get on board with the need to do something about climate change?

The United Nations’ IPCC is leading an international effort to understand climate change, and efforts like the Kyoto Protocol have grown out of that background work. But are we getting closer to solving the problem?

The vast majority of climate scientists are telling us that we’re careening headlong into the unknown world of a rapidly warming climate, and they offer policy recommendations for addressing that. Except for a few progressive countries that have taken to heart the need to slow carbon emissions—countries like Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Sweden—there is little sign that the rest of the world is even paying attention, let alone embarking on a path that will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

What will it take for the rest of the world to get on board?

Tuckertown, New Jersey under water on Octobr 30, 2012 during Hurricane Sandy.
Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Peak oil?

I used to hope that the costs of extracting dwindling reserves of oil, gas, and coal would increase to the point that dramatic reductions in consumption would result. I read the articles about “peak oil” (the idea that once the peak in world oil production was reached there would be inexorable declines in production, accompanied by large increases in cost) and hoped that this could be the driver of significant reductions in fossil fuel use.

Alas, even as production of conventional oil probably did peak a few years ago, advances in extraction of unconventional oil through hydraulic fracturing (fraking), deep-seabed drilling, and other technologies compensated for the reductions in easy-to-access oil, and cost increases were largely kept in check.

Commodity pricing is tightly tied to supply and demand, though, and it’s still possible that we will see large increases in price drive conservation. But it’s also possible that costs will actually drop, making it very hard to turn our collective backs on the highly concentrated, carbon-rich fuels.

Suddenly waking up to the reality of climate change?

I have also long held out hope that science would be able to convince the public and policymakers that our current trajectory is leading us to catastrophe. This metaphor helps explain where we are:

Imagine that your doctor tells you that you have cancer. Not satisfied with that single opinion, you visit 100 doctors for their prognoses, and 98 of them tell you that even though your symptoms may not be that obvious, you have cancer and need to take immediate action to cure it. The other two doctors tell you that the little bump is nothing and you shouldn’t worry about it. Most of us would take action based on advice the 98 doctors and not the two with contradictory advice.

That’s where we are with climate change science today. Ninety-eight percent of climate scientists are telling us that our emissions of greenhouse gases are leading us inexorably to a hotter climate, melting glaciers, sea level rise, more intense storms, and a host of other effects. But a lot of us—and especially our policy makers in Washington—are listening to that 2% of climate scientists who say “don’t worry about it; go on with business as usual.”

Much of the blame for the societal doubt about climate change has to do with journalists—my own profession. In a presentation in Putney, Vermont last week, outdoor writer Tom Clynes, who wrote a fascinating article on climate change deniers for Popular Science magazine two years ago, explained that journalists are trained to present good information on the topic at hand, but then find an opposing points of view to present a “balanced perspective.”

Journalists do this in reporting on climate change, going back to the same climate-change deniers, such as the Heartland Institute, where well-funded “experts” offer the opposing view that climate change is a farce. This perpetuates the misimpression by the public that there still is a lot of doubt about the science of climate change.

So, while I will continue trying to convince the public and policy makers that climate change is real and we need to do something about it, I am increasingly doubtful that we will take significant action as long as the effects are mostly future predictions and not in our faces.

Seeing and feeling climate change

This brings me to the scenario that I think will most likely—finally—result in real action: a series of events that even the most skeptical climate-change denier cannot ignore. In the cancer analogy above, this would be the point at which the cancer metastasizes and multiple tumors appear on multiple organs in such a visible way that even those last two doctors who told you not to worry will now tell you that action is needed—though they might well say that it’s too late (sorry about that).

So, what would those climate-change events look like? How obvious would they have to be to finally convince the naysayers and create public demand for real action?

Will it be the next Hurricane Sandy, which this time hits New York and Boston with full Category-4 or Category-5 force and a commensurate storm surge? Will it be a drought in the West so severe that power plants have to shut down for lack of cooling water and the flow of food from California stops? Will it be three feet of sea level rise and an abandonment of Miami and New Orleans?

A focus on resilience

I wish that we as a society were more willing to base decisions on science, and I hope that if it takes more compelling evidence to convince policy makers to finally take real action on climate change that those wake-up calls won’t be too tragic in their outcomes.

As we wait to find out, I’m going to continue to focus on resilience as a driver of action—for more on that, see Resilient Design: 7 Lessons from Early Adopters.

Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, Inc. and executive editor of Environmental Building News. In 2012 he founded the Resilient Design Institute. To keep up with Alex’s latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed.

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