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The Right Climate for a Climate Change Lesson?

With the election safely out of the way, is it finally time for the climate deniers to get their comeuppance? Well, maybe, and maybe not.

Let’s start by recognizing that it’s been a good couple of weeks for those of us who inhabit what used to be (may no longer be?) scorned as “the reality-based community.” Admittedly there were some anxious moments. Like millions of others, I became a polling junkie in those final days of the campaign. Was Nate Silver right in his Five Thirty-Eight blog at the New York Times, that Obama really had a 91 percent chance of re-election? Or were the conservative pundits correct when they claimed that reputable polling companies like CNN/Opinion Research, Quinnipiac, and Ipsos/Reuters were systematically biased in favor of Democrats and that Mitt Romney was headed for victory?

Of course, we know the answer now. The election brought both hope -- a president who finally broached the issue of climate change in his acceptance speech -- and, it has to be said, a certain amount of Schadenfreude, which I suspect was shared across a good part of the political spectrum. Much of this, of course, was directed at Karl Rove’s now-celebrated exchange with anchor Megyn Kelly on Fox News, which went instantly viral. “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?” Kelly asked Rove, after he challenged polls showing an Obama victory in Ohio. As John Adams said, facts are stubborn things.

Meanwhile, coastal communities from the barrier islands of New Jersey to the shores of Long Island were digging out from Superstorm Sandy. The trauma continues, three weeks later, but many people found partial comfort in the idea that Sandy, together with the president’s re-election, might have given us the “teachable moment” we’d been waiting for on climate change.

Here, too, the polling data seemed to be running in favor of the reality-based community. Less than a month before the election (and just before Sandy hit), there were two encouraging new surveys by the highly respected Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University Center for Climate Change. The first looked at general attitudes to the reality of global warming, the second at the relationship between extreme weather events and climate change.

The headlines:

  • Seventy percent of Americans now believe that global warming is real, a 13-point increase since January 2010.
  • Over the same period, the number of outright deniers has declined from 20 percent to 12 percent.
  • Three out of four Americans now say they trust climate scientists as a source of information.
  • Seventy-four percent say that “global warming is affecting weather in the United States” (up five points since March).
  • Clear majorities say that this year’s record summer heat, the prolonged drought in the Midwest, and the unusually warm winter and spring of 2011-2012 were made worse by global warming.

So everything seems on track for that teachable moment, right? Well, not necessarily. The reason for my wariness lies in the polling data that the Obama campaign used to such striking effect in its election-day “ground game.” The key is in the detail, the “granularity” that lies beneath any large generalization about how people think. If Sandy is indeed a teachable moment, who exactly do we want to teach, and what language will we use to teach them -- even assuming that teach, with its patronizing overtones, is the term we want to use? For those of us who live in liberal areas of Manhattan and Brooklyn (cut off communications to Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood and you’d silence half the environmental and science writers in the country), it may feel tempting to go out into the world and spread the fact-based story in which we have long believed, a story that was bolstered by those Yale-George Mason polls, followed by the fury of Sandy. But what about those who bore the brunt of the storm? If anyone should be drawing the right conclusions from the event, surely it’s the people who live along the Jersey Shore, or on Staten Island, or on the south side of Long Island.

But I began to wonder about this as I read an insightful blog published on election day by the British climate analyst George Marshall. Climate-driven natural disasters may not turn the victims into true believers in global warming, Marshall wrote. The reason is that they often have their own deeply embedded pre-existing narrative of belief, very different from ours, and this may be reinforced rather than challenged by a traumatic event. He offers a case study from the unprecedented heat- and drought-induced wildfires that ravaged central Texas in 2011. The response to these was not a sudden blinding insight into the realities of climate change. Instead, it was pride in the resilience and collective sense of purpose of the affected communities, the all-pull-together way in which neighbor helped neighbor and heroes rose to unimaginable challenges.

The analogue in the case of Sandy, I think, may be those coastal communities in New York and New Jersey. In a way, they’re our Texas. The Northeast may be a famously Democratic stronghold, but a more granular map would actually show an intricate patchwork of red and blue. The places that suffered most from the storm are between 75 and 90 percent white, with a marked presence of professions like cops and firefighters, many of them belonging to famously tight-knit Irish-American and Italian-American communities. They look out for one another; they value kindness; they pull together in times of crisis (think 9/11). Again, of course, it’s a mistake to generalize. These places, too, have their own kind of granularity, and I happen to know a good number of firefighters in these neighborhoods whose views are distinctly liberal. But overall this is New York Post territory, our city’s print equivalent of Fox News (sample headline from a 2011 column, hailing an obscure new study by a climate skeptic: “Warming” not? Climate-Change Theory Faces Sudden Collapse).

Most of these congressional districts vote Republican. And that doesn’t mean the milquetoast Northeastern Republicans of earlier times. Peter King, for example, whose district includes a chunk of the Long Island shore, is the hawkish chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security who came to national attention when he convened hearings on the extremist threat from the Muslim-American community.

Then there’s John Runyan of New Jersey’s Third District, which includes devastated communities like Seaside Heights, whose rollercoaster was swept into the ocean, providing one of Sandy’s most iconic images. In its rankings of members of the House of Representatives on a liberal-to-conservative spectrum, That's My Congress awards Runyan a score of -63. By way of comparison, that’s two points more conservative than Paul Ryan and only three short of Michele Bachman.

Michael Grimm of New York’s 11th District, which is largely composed of Staten Island, is even farther out on the right flank. He scores a –72, making him the reddest member of Congress in the northeast. And he is a vocal climate skeptic. “Global warming is an ongoing topic of debate,” he wrote in his pre-election appeal in 2010. “I want to be fully informed with accurate information before I accept any proposal that will destroy American jobs.”

The people who returned these Republicans to Congress are out there now leading the post-Sandy clean-up, shoulder-to-shoulder with their liberal neighbors, driven by their deep-rooted narrative of self-help and solidarity. As Marshall says, it’s hard to challenge that kind of narrative with a more attenuated argument that says, essentially, this disaster was caused (in part) by climate change, which is caused (in part) by human activity, to which your behavior (in part) contributes.

So before we rush to Staten Island and the Jersey Shore looking for new recruits, we should stop and think hard about how to use this teachable moment. Yale polls probably won’t cut much ice there, and the last thing we should be saying is, “Now do you get it?” Better to start with things that touch their lives directly: the possible long-term impact of extreme weather events on the real estate industry, or the growing difficulty of insuring their treasured seaside homes. The facts we have marshaled about climate may be stubborn things, but local messages need to be tailored with the greatest care and respect. It’s time, in other words, to think granular.

Image: Luna Park Coney Island

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >
Environmentalists want to cool the planet, which will only precipitate the massive depopulation which will be caused by a 100,000-year-long Ice Age which is already overdue. Google Gaia proposer, Prof. James Lovelock, on the need for more CO2. Warming is good; cooling can be fatal. Ask retirees in Florida why they didn't choose Alaska instead. And forget "sustainability" -- it's akin to unilateral disarmament -- and, for all intents and purposes, the Earth has only about 1,000 years before most of the land is covered in ice. Only the most vicious and powerful will be able to survive in such an environment. Brian Wilshire 2GB 873AM Sydney, Australia.
Brian, I can't believe people like you are still littering up serious discussions affecting humanity. Do you have children? Are you a paid corporate hack who's sold your soul? There is no more time for this garbage... we need a full on global conservation/renewables deployment program which can put millions to work saving this planet despite all the ignorant deniers like you...you're pathetic