To Bring Urgency, We Need to Shift the Climate Change Debate’s Focus to the Impacts on the American People

Extreme storms and flooding in the U.S. are already being exacerbated by climate change, and this problem will only get worse in the near future if we don’t take action. In 2016 and 2017 the United States saw a number of record-breaking storms and floods across the Midwest and South, including a 1-in-1,000 year flooding event in Louisiana and at least eight 1-in-500 year flooding events across the Midwest and South. Studies have shown that extreme storms now drop 67% more precipitation in the U.S. Northeast, 31% more in the Midwest and 15% more in the Great Plains than they did 50 years ago (or 700% more in McAllen and 167% more in Houston, in case you wondering about the South). This is in line with climate change science, which says that hotter air holds more moisture and that this, combined with increased heat energy in the atmosphere that feeds stronger storms, leads to more extreme downpours and flooding.

Did that catch your attention? I was going to start the article with something a little more along the lines of: “A recent article by John Abraham discusses how the last remaining data set favored by climate deniers (e.g. used heavily by Ted Cruz and de-bunked by retired Rear Admiral David Titley during Senate hearings) now shows a significant temperature increase over the last 20 years — meaning that every major type of temperature data set in the world now confirms the existence of global warming, and the vast majority of the world’s scientists say this is due almost 100% to humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions.” But it’s just too wordy, and we all know the facts “don’t matter” in this debate — or rather what matters most is reality, and the facts should be merely be used in support of this. So why is it that in face of reality and the overwhelming facts we are still not making progress in pushing our politicians in the U.S. (or motivating the American people to push our politicians) to take strong, immediate action on climate change?

Part of the answer is that we are not communicating effectively to the American public because we are focusing way too much on the science and the mind-boggingly large future impacts to our planet and not enough on the immediate, tangible impacts on the American people. Now I am all for the science. I must confess, I scrapped a whole second paragraph that talked all about the satellite data measurements (discussed in Mr. Abraham’s article), how they have been continuously corrected and revised and how they now are in line with the land and sea surface temperatures that show a clear global warming trend over the last 30 years. But that doesn’t engage people. I believe we need the science and the science should inform our thinking and our actions but the reality is we need to hear about the real, immediate impacts of climate change so that people can somehow wrap their head around this problem and realize there are solutions.

So back to my original intro: Climate change-linked flooding in the U.S. in 2016 and 2017, which included at least eight 1-in-500 year flooding events, caused massive damage and disruptions to the live of individuals and communities. The 2016 flooding in the Midwest killed at least ten people, destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses, affected 900,000 acres of farmland in Arkansas alone, released raw sewage and chemicals into the streets and caused an estimated $1 billion in damages. The worst, besides those who lost their lives, is the many people who weren’t prepared and who lost their home and all of their possessions — and now have to start over again. But this is now the new normal due to climate change, and it’s only going to get worse. An attribution study found that the odds of the 1-in-1,000 year storm that hit Louisiana in August of 2016 were increased 40% by climate change. Data from the EPA has shown that more rain is falling in intense one-day events than ever and that 9 out of the top 10 years of extreme one-day precipitation events have all occurred since 1990. Climate change is already here, and this is just one way in which it is already affecting the lives of the American people.

Above: A 1-in-1,000 year storm hit Baton Rouge and other parts of Louisiana in August 2016, killing 13 people and destroying or severely damaging some 60,000 homes. Storms like these are a sign of climate change and will likely become much more common as climate change worsens. Photo by the U.S. Coast Guard (Melissa Leake) and copyrighted under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

It should also come as no surprise that a recent open letter by 377 members of the National Academy of Scientists and 30 Nobel Laureates stated that it is “beyond a reasonable doubt, however, that the problem of human-caused climate change is real, serious, and immediate, and that this problem poses significant risks: to our ability to thrive and build a better future, to national security, to human health and food production, and to the interconnected web of living systems.”

So why does it seem like climate scientists and their supporters in the U.S. are playing defense, trying to swat away an endless barrage of fake news, false assertions and deceptions about climate change? We should really be on offense, demanding that our politicians tell us what their theory is for what’s causing climate change, why they are opposing the overwhelming scientific consensus that it is primarily human-caused and why they are ignoring the effects that climate change is having on the American people right now. And lastly, why are they risking our present and our future?­


Above: Farmland flooded in Arkansas after the Blackwater River overflowed due to torrential rains in 2008. According to the EPA, 9 of the top 10 years of extreme one-day precipitation have occurred since 1990, which mirrors the recent upward trend in temperatures across the U.S. and the globe. Photo by Samir Valeja and belongs in the public domain.

We need to assert our right to demand answers as to why our politicians are opposing the scientific consensus rather than merely labeling people as “climate change deniers.” The attempts by our politicians (e.g. Senator Al Franken) and the media to call out politicians on their climate change denial are starting to get there, but they’re just not going quite far enough. Part of it is we are still stuck in the debate and the mindset of “climate change denialism vs. acceptance,” and the “ah-ha” moments in news headlines are usually that “so-and-so is a climate change denier” — that was the debate 20 years ago though. The debate today should be, why are you opposing the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is nearly 100% human-caused and why are you ignoring the impacts on the lives of Americans today? We need to shift the focus of the debate to the impacts on the American people because it will bring the debate the urgency and immediacy that it rightly deserves. It’s also a lot harder for deniers to deny what is happening to Americans at the present moment, is being shown on TV and could (and will) happen to any person in any part of the country. Lastly, focusing on immediate impacts (and the near future) engages people in a way that the constant grind of headlines on “Melting Antarctic Ice!” and “Future Global Sea Level Rise!” just don’t capture.

We also need to demand answers for the increasingly unexplainable and indefensible position of climate consensus-deniers.

Part of the difficulty is that climate change deniers have moved from the argument that climate change isn’t real to the weaker, more amorphous argument that climate change isn’t mostly due to human activities or its effects are so variable and uncertain we shouldn’t act on it now. Hence most of the words coming out Scott Pruitt’s and Rick Perry’s mouths these days are about the “continuing debate” and fictional “disagreement” among scientists about the effects of climate change.

Even in their most blatant slip-ups that show their true denier colors, these politicians are still focusing less on outright denying climate change and more on sowing disinformation and confusion about the science. In a way, this is a good thing because it means we have pushed climate change deniers to the very core of their argument and their strategy. Their goal is not and never has been to convince the majority of Americans that climate change isn’t real. Their goal, as outlined clearly in this presentation by the Union of Concerned Scientists and by others, is to spread doubt among the American public about the science of climate change in order to stall as much as possible and give powerful corporations as much as they want before serious climate action happens and their “play time” is over.

This is not a debate “where facts matter” because climate change deniers have never been serious about proving their point — but rather only about confusing and misleading others on the science of climate change. There is only one clear solution to doubt, paranoia and conspiracy thinking: reality. We need to bring home to Americans the reality of climate change as it is happening now, and name that paranoia, baseless assertions and conspiracy thinking for what it is.

Our efforts to simply call out climate change deniers as deniers are not enough. It is time to call them out for their tactics, make their their game clear, press them for answers as to why they are ignoring the overwhelming scientific consensus, why they are ignoring the immediate effects of climate change on the American people and why they are ignoring the need to act.

The curtain’s up. Play time’s over. It’s time we exposed this administration for its selfish actions and hold them accountable to act in the interest of the American people and our future generations.

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