Climate change manages to be both super simple and super complicated.
Of all the issues in the world today, climate change is perhaps one of the most ever-present. It’s an inescapable global problem, and it can feel pretty scary to jump into the conversation when there’s so much information (and let’s be honest, misinformation) circling around. But climate change doesn’t have to be a taboo topic, and it doesn’t have to be incomprehensible.
Elite Daily spoke with three climate change experts about what you need to know to understand the ongoing climate crisis, from causes and effects to possible solutions and everything in between. Cara Horowitz, J.D., is the co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law. Lesley Ott, Ph.D., is the meteorological researcher at NASA’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office at Goddard Space Flight Center. Gavin Schmidt, Ph.D., is the director of GISS and principal investigator for the GISS ModelE Earth System Model at NASA. Here are their expert perspectives about climate change as a personal, political, and global issue.
The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
In simple terms, can you explain exactly what climate change is?
LO: Climate change very simply means that the world around us, our environment, is changing. And when we talk about climate change, for the most part, what we mean is that the world is getting warmer in response to emissions of greenhouse gases, which act like a blanket and trap heat within the atmosphere. In addition to that warming, there are all kinds of other effects we might feel day to day. Those effects can mean more frequent extreme weather events, droughts, thunderstorms, wildfires, altered growing seasons, and more. We're talking about climate, but we're also talking about the impacts on the environment and our lives in a much broader way.
GS: Modern climate change really started to be noticed in the 1980s. However, our understanding of why the climate’s changing actually goes back to the 19th century, when it was discovered that, although trace greenhouse gases were between .03 and .04 percent of the atmosphere, they make a very large difference in the planet’s temperature. These gases act as a blanket, trapping heat from the sun within Earth’s atmosphere. The amount of these trace greenhouse gases in the atmosphere steadily rose through the 20th century, when we were burning coal, oil, and natural gas as fuel sources. We began to see upward trends in temperatures that started in the 19th century, and pieced the evidence together in the ‘80s. Out of all the factors we’ve studied, greenhouse gas emission from human activity is the only factor capable of producing the kind of large-scale warming trends we’ve seen over the last 50 years, which works out to a temperature increase of about .23 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.
How is climate change affecting everyday human lives?
LO: People might say, “I don't care about sea-level rise because I don't live near the ocean,” or “I don't care about wildfires because I don't live in the Western U.S. or California, so why does this affect me?” But we’re seeing evidence of climate change across the globe. It could be more severe in some regions, but we are seeing changes everywhere humans live. One example is that we're seeing changes in the growing season. As temperatures warm, summers are becoming longer, and winters are becoming shorter. That changes our ability to produce food, the way we grow crops, and changes extreme weather events, like floods and droughts, that affect agriculture and can ultimately increase food prices. So even if you think, “Hey, I live in a place where I'm not getting hit by the worst effects of climate change,” you're still going to see some of these effects because of the changes happening elsewhere. We're all connected, and even if you're not super conscious of the effects of climate change, they’re happening every day.
How did climate change become such a divisive political topic?
CH: Throughout most of American history, environmental causes and the idea we should conserve natural resources for future generations were bipartisan. Richard Nixon, for example, a Republican president, signed some of our foundational environmental laws in the United States, like the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969.
But climate change has taken a different trajectory, becoming a really difficult partisan topic. The Republican Party has become increasingly one-sided on this issue, and has sought to paint efforts to control climate change as a liberal problem. When we first began understanding what climate change was, it could be framed as a problem that mostly affected people, animals, or habitats far away from where you lived. Its effects weren’t immediately visible in the United States. And in those early years, Republicans successfully framed efforts to relieve climate change as requiring sacrifices that would cost too much money, or make it more difficult to expand the U.S. economy. But now, those framings have been more difficult to sustain, because you no longer need to be a scientist to understand climate change is happening. You just have to look out the window and see wildfires, floods, and deadly heat waves. Climate change has become an issue that hits close to home. People understand when we do something about climate change, we're doing it for our own good.
What does the scientific side of the issue lose when climate change, a fact-based reality, becomes so politicized?
LO: There's a difference between facts and policy. Everybody is entitled to have their own opinions about climate change and policy. And while I don't necessarily agree with this viewpoint, it’s rational for people to look at the facts and say, “Yes, I think climate change is happening, but I don't necessarily want our government to act.” So that's an example of a rational, reasonable stance — even if it's not one you agree with. But what isn’t rational or reasonable is for everyone to have their own set of “facts.”
We very clearly understand the scientific basis for climate change, and there is an unprecedented level of agreement among scientists across the world. There’s rarely such a scientific consensus, so it’s extraordinary, really, to have scientists overwhelmingly agree that the Earth’s climate is changing dramatically, and that it’s changing because of human activities. Politicizing the issue makes everyone's job a little bit harder. We need to direct that politicization away from the science, and move it toward our governing institutions, where different people have different ideas about what our response to climate change can look like.
GS: The communication environment has been polluted by people spouting nonsense for their own political gain. When this happens, what we all lose is the ability to make rational evidence-based decisions. We’ve seen it happen during the pandemic, when certain political factions have spread misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccines and mask usage. We’re seeing people say, “I don’t believe the CDC about COVID-19,” or, “I don’t believe NASA about climate change,” and discount vital sources of information until it’s their home that’s flooded, or their loved one that’s sick. But luckily there's a limit to how effective these kinds of contrarian political views can be. While there’s still a noisy political minority that’s becoming increasingly marginal, there’s a very strong majority in America in favor of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
According to a 2017 study, researchers from the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) and the Climate Accountability Institute found that just 100 companies were responsible for over 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. Why isn’t there more comprehensive legislation regulating corporate greenhouse gas emissions?
CH: The holdup harkens back to our conversation about partisanship. Climate change has become hyper-partisan in the United States, and many American politicians aren’t willing to create new constraints on polluting entities — many of which may be among their largest donors. The fossil fuel industry has played a prominent role in fighting climate regulation, and in generating political momentum behind the (now-debunked) idea that addressing climate change will harm our economy. It's now very clear that addressing climate change would help us improve our economy by making it more sustainable and by creating jobs in clean energy sectors. But when climate change first started popping up as an issue in the 1980s, polluting companies really did succeed in framing climate change relief as harmful to the economy. So that played a role in allowing Republicans and others to create a sense that this was really a partisan issue.
I want to be clear, it's not all Republicans. In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of the state’s biggest climate champions as a Republican. He understood the idea that choosing between climate action and economic success was a forced, false dichotomy. In fact, Republican values should be in favor of climate action, because doing nothing about climate change will cause more damage to the economy in the end. Other individual Republican politicians across the country feel the same, but the national Republican Party jumped too deep into denying climate change in an effort to combat political action on it.
In your expert opinion, what is the best way to mitigate climate change?
LO: On an individual level, there’s a limit on how much good or bad any one person can do to combat climate change. This is a situation that’s come from billions of people over decades and decades. Additionally, climate change is both a very difficult and very simple issue. It's simple in that we know exactly what's happening to the planet, we know it’s because of greenhouse gases, and we know where these greenhouse gases come from. But addressing the issue is tricky, because the things that cause greenhouse gases are so fundamental to many aspects of our lives. However, we need to change the way we consume energy by weaning ourselves off energy sources that produce greenhouse gases, like coal, oil, and natural gas. We know the path that we need to go down to combat climate change. It's really up to our political leaders in our country and others to marshal the response, and really put the procedures in place to do just that, to reduce our emissions.
GS: [Recycling and reducing your energy consumption] isn’t the worst thing in the world, but all the personal actions in the world aren’t going to solve this problem. I don't speak for NASA when I say this, but we should be pushing to electrify transportation as fast as possible, pushing for more walkable and bike-able cities, investing in public transit, shutting down coal power stations, phasing out natural gas stations, and building a smarter energy grid that connects the United States, Canada, and Mexico. We should also be investing in more sustainable energy sources, like on- and off-shore wind, and we shouldn’t be phasing out nuclear power stations that still have life in them. There's a number of things we can do to combat climate change, and while we are doing some of them, we’re not doing them fast enough.
Additionally, the infrastructure is not all there yet. We have a lot of the resources in America, but we're still missing some practical application for those things. We have to make the investments, and those investments take a while to come to fruition.
CH: There is an attempt, and in some ways it's often quite deliberate, to make individuals think it's their fault climate change is happening. To say, “If only they made different lifestyle choices, if only they recycled more, or ate less meat, we’d solve this problem.” I actually resist those framings. This is not a problem that can be solved by individual lifestyle choices, at least not in place of widespread societal change. So when people ask me what they can do to combat climate change, my answers always start with pushing for society-wide or political changes.
What can young people do about climate change?
LO: Don't become apathetic. It's easy to get overwhelmed by all the bad news. I've had numerous questions asking, “Is it too late? Should we just give up and stop doing anything?” And to that, I would emphasize if we don't do anything, things will get worse.
If you feel strongly about climate change, get active. Make sure you and your friends go out and vote in state and local elections. We make the mistake of thinking the only changes that matter happen at the national level, and that's not true. States and cities have climate action plans, and many are working pretty aggressively to cut their emissions. So if you get frustrated by inaction at higher levels, get involved at home by shaping the conversation to make sure your priorities are being heard.
CH: One big misconception about climate change is the idea that it’s too late to do something about it. There's a sort of fatalism among young people in some perverse ways. We've gone straight from climate denial to climate fatalism in the United States, without spending a lot of time in the middle to find solutions. It's really important for people to understand it’s not too late to do something about climate change, and to significantly limit harm to communities and natural resources.
While some changes are irreversible, we can still reduce suffering throughout the world in really meaningful ways. So it's incredibly important for people to push their legislators and politicians on these issues, to talk about these issues with their families and friends, and to build a community movement in this direction. These are problems we can solve, if we have the political will to solve them.