The latest round of international negotiations about climate change are underway in South Africa, and will prompt a lot of press coverage, mostly about the likelihood that, once again, the nations of the world will fail to agree on anything of substance. But developments a couple weeks ago that got less attention may promise more progress on climate change than all the posturing in Durban. Those developments portend that climate change may finally be turning into a serious, tangible, immediate threat, the kind that worries us enough to push our politicians to act.
You may have seen one of these developments, the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that finds that climate change is probably associated with some of the extreme weather the world has been experiencing in the past few years, and will probably lead to more extreme weather events in the future. The other got much less notice but might be more important. A survey of American public opinion about whether climate change exacerbated specific recent extreme weather events in the U.S., taken by Yale and George Mason University in November, before the scientific experts linked climate change and extreme weather, found that large majorities of Americans already see a connection.
The important new element here is not the IPCC evidence. (see U.N. Panel: Climate Change Will Bring More Extreme Weather or U.N. Sees Links to Extreme Weather) What's new and vital here is the evidence that the nature of the threat is changing, a shift that may finally make us feel more threatened, and more ready to act. The study of the psychology of risk perception (see "How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts" has found that we are less afraid of risks like climate change that are abstract, that don't seem to threaten us directly and personally, and that are delayed, than we are of threats that are concrete, personal, and happening now or soon. Climate change used to be a not-so-personally-threatening threat to distant ice caps and polar bears and "those poor people over there who are barely surviving", something that may make sea levels invisibly creep higher, and might do bad things to us 'someday'. Nothing most people think of as really, personally, scary.
That's changing. The death and destruction and suffering from floods and storms and droughts and heat waves being experienced all around the world are dramatically concrete and real. Severe weather events are widespread enough to be local and personal for many of us. And 'someday' appears to be 'now'. The evidence of the connection between climate change and extreme weather is starting to turn the threat into something we're more likely to worry more about.
And that's the key change. Worry "more". Majorities have expressed concern about climate change in surveys for years. Even in the U.S., where conservative ideology continues to promote climate change denial, most people believe the risk is real, that humans are contributing to it, and that something needs to be done. But while that concern has been broad, it has also been shallow. Ask people what they are personally willing to do, or spend, to combat climate change, and the majority that believes in the problem shrinks to a minority willing to act, or spend, if it means any sacrifice at all. The response to climate change has been tepid, inadequate to either mitigate the problem or begin to adapt to what it's going to do to us.
But associating climate change with more unpredictable and severe dangerous weather makes the threat more real and personal and urgent, and that's likely to change minds. For the majority who already believe the risk is real, like many in the Northeast, freak early snowstorms or flooding from Tropical Storm Irene that did so much damage in Vermont may shift perception of climate change from 'vaguely concerning' to more 'directly alarming'. And for those in the middle of America still doubtful that the threat is real, heat waves and droughts and wild fires in Texas, and more frequent and severe floods on the Mississippi and Missouri, will have a much more powerful influence on their skepticism than "An Inconvenient Truth" or more OpEds from Bill McKibben or environmental polemicism from Joe Romm et.al.
Most of us haven't felt personally seriously endangered by climate change. But when people do actually feel threatened, they respond. Extreme weather may be what it takes to add meaningful emotional valence to what so far has been a largely abstract peril. We could well be at a tipping point, when concern about climate change not only broadens, but deepens, and people are more ready to act and spend and pressure politicians and policy makers to finally do the hard but necessary system-wide things that need to be done.