Curbing climate change: Why it's so hard to act in time
Posted by admin on 18th August 2017

This summer I worked on the Greenland ice sheet, part of a scientific experiment to study surface melting and its contribution to Greenland’s accelerating ice losses. By virtue of its size, elevation and currently frozen state, Greenland has the potential to cause large and rapid increases to sea level as it melts.

When I returned, a nonscientist friend asked me what the research showed about future sea level rise. He was disappointed that I couldn’t say anything definite, since it will take several years to analyze the data. This kind of time lag is common in science, but it can make communicating the issues difficult. That’s especially true for climate change, where decades of data collection may be required to see trends.

A recent draft report on climate change by federal scientists exploits data captured over many decades to assess recent changes, and warns of a dire future if we don’t change our ways. Yet few countries are aggressively reducing their emissions in a way scientists say are needed to avoid the dangers of climate change.

While this lack of progress dismays people, it’s actually understandable. Human beings have evolved to focus on immediate threats. We have a tough time dealing with risks that have time lags of decades or even centuries. As a geoscientist, I’m used to thinking on much longer time scales, but I recognize that most people are not. I see several kinds of time lags associated with climate change debates. It’s important to understand these time lags and how they interact if we hope to make progress.

Agreeing on the goal

Changing the basic energy underpinnings of our industrial economy will not be easy or cheap, and will require broad public support. Today nearly half of Americans – presumably including President Trump, based on his public comments – do not believe that humans are the primary cause of modern rapid climate change. Others admit that humans have contributed, but may not support strict regulations or big investments in response.

In part, these views reflect the influence of special interest groups who benefit from our high-carbon “business as usual” economic system. But they also reflect the complexity of the problem, and the difficulty scientists have in explaining it. As I point out in my recent book on how we think about disasters, statements made by scientists in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s about global warming were often vague and full of caveats, which made it easy for climate change skeptics to forestall action by emphasizing how uncertain the picture was.

Fortunately, scientists are improving at communication. The increasing frequency of coastal flooding, summer heat waves and droughts could also help to change minds, but it may take a few more decades before a solid majority of Americans supports high-level action.