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Wednesday, August 15,2012

Closing the window on climate change

How much heat will it take to get fired up?

by Lawrence Cosentino

There’s a bright side to the hottest year in Michigan history.

Vinifera grapes love dusty Mediterranean places like Morocco and Portugal. The vines are sinewy and stoic, like my Sicilian grandfather. They didn’t jump out of the ground during the record March 2012 heat wave, only to be killed by April frosts. An estimated 90 percent of the state’s cherry crop and many other fruits and grains did just that, and were wiped out.

“It was a disaster for the fruit industry,” Michigan state climatologist Jeff Andresen said. “We lost a large amount of our apple, cherry, peach and grape crops.”

But take heart. Lots of tasty wine is on the way.

“There’s a lot of real optimism about this year’s vintage,” Andresen said. “We’ve had a very warm summer, and the quality might be very high.”

That’s welcome news, because the S.S. 2012 Heat Wave is starting to feel like the mother of all tropical cruises — the one we’ve been told about since scientists began to ring the alarm bell about climate change in the mid-1980s. The wine bar is a nice touch, but excuse me, steward, aren’t we steaming into hell? Where is the captain? Shouldn’t we be doing something about this?


‘Like the desert’

Jake Dunne, the athletic morning and noon meteorologist for WLNS TV in Lansing, cuts a dashing figure in high def, but last Wednesday he was in deep incognito, in a baseball hat and rumpled black T-Shirt.

“I’m not Brad Pitt, but I try to dress down,” he said.

At the YMCA, at the store, even over family dinner at Applebee’s, people have been collaring Dunne all year to talk about the record heat. 

March 1, 2 and 3 pushed into the mid-80s, breaking all-time records for that month. “Something that hadn’t happened in over 150 years happened not once, not twice, but three times in a row,” Dunne marveled.

That was only the beginning. “July was the hottest on record and the hottest month in Lansing history,” Dunne said. “There has never been a month hotter than July 2012, any month, any year.”

Dunne, an avid football fan, savors the stats. “On July 4, we hit 100 for the first time since 1988. We just missed it the next day, the 5th, then on Friday, the 6th, we went to 103, the highest temperature ever recorded in Lansing history. We’re shattering records left and right.”

He explained that the winter of 2011-2012, the fourth mildest in the state’s history, was a perfect setup.

“We came out of spring without the snow pack we usually have,” Dunne explained. “Our ground was already dry.”

Dunne pointed at the window, appropriately decorated with wavy orange hot-coffee decals. We looked at the parking lot beyond, baking in mid-August sun.

“Dry ground heats up faster. That’s pretty much what has happened all summer long. The ground is heating up like concrete, like the desert.”

It sounded almost apocalyptic, but Dunne said that hot periods have come on in 25- to 30-year cycles since records have been kept in the mid-1900s.

“It’s like a roller coaster ride,” he said. “Our peaks are getting higher. This back-to-back summers of 2011and 2012 are the hottest in the past 125 years, at least. So we are definitely heading up.”

But Dunne doesn’t think human activity is fueling the cycle.

“My official stance is that yes, the globe is warming, and no, we’re not nearly as responsible as you’re being led to believe,” he said.

Dunne has made about 400 school visits since coming to the Lansing market seven years ago. Mostly, the kids want to ogle his StormTracker van, but if the question of climate change comes up — and it’s usually raised by a teacher, Dunne said — he tells them what he thinks. 


‘It’s criminal’

“We need to have skeptics,” Jeff Andresen said. “No question. But at some point in time, it’s like in a legal court. There is a vast amount of evidence in the scientific literature that supports the link between human activities and climate change.”

As computers improve and data piles up, Andresen said, the case for man-made climate change has only gotten stronger.

“My undergraduate training was as a forecaster, a meteorologist,” he said. “I was skeptical of some of what I heard from people like James Hansen back in the 1980s.” Hansen is the NASA official who testified about global warming before Congress in 1988, bringing the issue to public consciousness.

Responding to Dunne’s argument that the data is thin, Andresen said temperature records from the Earth’s past come from “reliable proxies” like pollen counts and sediment cores.

“Obviously, we didn’t have a platinum resistance thermometer set up, as we do now, but the proxies are fairly reliable, and many of them are in agreement,” he said.

After talking with a few climatologists, I have formed an unscientific theory about them. These days, they all wake up in the morning, bury their head in a stack of pillows, scream “WHAT DID WE TELL YOU??” and then calmly go to work.

You certainly won’t hear them crowing about the current hot weather in broad daylight. When NASA’s Hansen released a study in early August explicitly linking recent heat waves to man-made climate change, many climate scientists distanced themselves, as if he’d passed gas.

“It is very difficult to link one of these events, like our heat wave in March or our drought this summer, with long-term climate change,” Andresen said. “That is the standard response.”

But then he let his hair down.

“Some of the increases in extreme events are consistent with projections for the future,” he said. “We have to take it seriously.”

Julie Winkler, a professor at MSU who specializes in climate change and its effect on agriculture, didn’t take the bait either. “I am very, very reluctant to take a particular event and link it directly to climate change,” she said.

Both Andresen and Winkler agree that human-caused climate change is real. It’s just that they’ve been burned (and frozen) before. Blizzards of “thanks, Al Gore” sarcasm flew during the harsh winter of 2009-2010. In a December 2009 op-ed, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, named Saturday by Mitt Romney as his GOP running mate, deadpanned that “unilateral economic restraint in the name of fighting global warming has been a tough sell in our communities, where much of the state is buried under snow.”

No wonder climatologists close the window and pull the spreadsheets over their heads.

To get some real heat out of Andresen, I had to mention his kids. Andresen has two sons, a freshman and a junior, at MSU, and figures there will be grandkids some day.

“My personal philosophy is, we have no right to screw up their life and leave a mess,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing. It’s my own opinion, but it’s certainly isn’t fair. It’s actually criminal.”

Struck by Andresen’s show of passion, I suggested to him that the gap between the magnitude of climate change and the blah level of public concern might be the biggest failure of basic science communication since Galileo was put under house arrest.

“I would agree 1,000 percent,” he said. “We have discussions about that on a regular basis, a great fear about that. We have to challenge ourselves to do better and seek truth.”

Aaron McCright, a sociology prof at MSU and specialist in the public perception of climate change, finds scientists’ Vulcan caution to be only the first in a formidable stack of stumbling blocks to getting the message across.

To begin with, the human brain isn’t designed to solve or even recognize so huge and sprawling a phenomenon as climate change. We prefer shiny distractions, or, as McCright puts it, “dramatic movements of middle-sized objects that can be visually perceived,” like footballs.

One middle-sized object people love to watch is a pair of arguing heads. I inadvertently unleashed some pent-up frustration when I emailed Tom Dietz, a founding director of MSU’s Environmental Science and Policy program, and let slip that I had talked with Dunne. In less than three minutes, a tart reply popped into my box.

Dietz is tired of seeing the media orchestrate splashy Jello-wrestling matches, under the guise of providing “balance,” by weighing the US National Academies, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and “well over 95 percent of scientists who actually work on climate change” against a “denialist,” into which category he apparently assigns Dunne. (Dietz may have invented that term).

He thinks the practice is a major cause of American foot-dragging on climate policy. “Many people think there is no scientific consensus on climate change and thus that we donīt need to act — both problematic views,” he wrote. 

The public opinion needle seems to have rusted in place. After looking at hundreds of polls and studies, McCright has found that public acceptance of the scientific consensus on man-made climate change “hasn’t changed much” over the last decade.

However, McCright found that the flat average masks a “robust” underlying shift. While acceptance of climate change among liberals has gone up, it’s gone down considerably among conservatives, and, to a lesser extent, among middle-of-the-roaders. What happened?

The answer is bleak. In an epic stroke of bad luck, a huge and complicated problem requiring unprecedented cooperation and consensus to solve came to light just as the national buzz saw of political polarization went into overdrive.

In new study covering the current heat wave, McCright is finding that political affiliation still has much more to do with public opinion on climate change than local weather, however weird. McCright’s latest research isn’t out yet, but a March 2012 study by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication covers similar ground: Since November 2011, public belief that global warming is happening increased by three points, to 66 percent. However, belief that it is caused mostly by human activities decreased four points, to 46 percent.

McCright also found that women are more likely to accept climate change science than men.

“Men still claim they have a better understanding of global warming than women, even though womenīs beliefs align much more closely with the scientific consensus," he said.

(Dunne told me that he prides himself on convincing his wife, a teacher, there’s no such thing as man-made climate change.)


Sowing doubt

Last fall, McCright and his colleague Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University drew up a flow chart of what they call the climate change denial “machine,” an array of influential, moneyed groups with a strong interest in sowing distrust of climate science.

“If [climate change] didn’t involve reinventing our energy economy, how we lay out cities, some companies failing and others winning, we wouldn’t have a problem,” he said.

In the chart, arrows bounce among interlocking interests, led by the fossil fuels industry (ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and so on), “corporate America” (Chambers of Commerce, manufacturing and mining associations), conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and “front groups” like the Global Climate Coalition. These, in turn, feed into an “echo chamber” of blogs, politicians and media.

It’s nothing new for a coalition of conservatives and industry heavyweights to oppose environmental regulations, but the climate change battles have taken the art to a whole new level. The deniers’ success, in McCright’s view, can be traced to a lesson learned in the Reagan years, when the dead lakes, killer smog and other environmental disasters of the 1960s and 1970s were fresh in the nation’s memory.

Suddenly, everybody was “green,” seemingly for good. Republicans like President Richard Nixon and Michigan Gov. William Milliken made the environment a top priority and backed up their rhetoric with action. To this day, the out-and-out reversal of clean air and water laws and regulations or dismantling of environmental agencies is a tough sell to the public.

So the opponents of environmental regulations moved to a far more effective strategy. They conceded the popular goal of environmental protection while challenging the science behind its underlying alarm calls. 

Promoting environmental skepticism, McCright said, has been a top priority for conservatives and industry since the 1992 Rio “Earth Summit” replaced the disappearing “red threat” with a “green threat.”

“These fears crystallized around climate change,” McCright concluded. And it didn’t take much.

“They don’t necessarily need to discredit the science,” McCright said. “They just need to raise the questions. Are you sure? Do you really know? That’s enough to make policy makers cautious.”


Rays of hope

When Jeff Andresen gives talks on climate change, he tells the audience that projected warming could be largely averted if there were an international agreement on limiting greenhouse gases. Curbing harmful land use patterns, such as urban sprawl and cutting down forests, would also make a difference.

“Everybody snickers,” Andresen said. “It gets a laugh.”

But it’s been done before. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan bucked his own skeptical advisers and approved a strong negotiating policy on ozone protection. He became the first head of state to sign on to the 1987 Montreal Protocol phasing out ozone-depleting CFCs, the most ambitious and successful global environmental fix ever attempted. With political cover from the Gipper himself, Republican lawmakers could vote safely for the treaty.

“With carbon, it’s a lot more complicated and expensive, but there is a precedent there,” Andresen said. 

“We could slow the rate of warming and actually reduce the amount of ultimate warming if action were taken now. There’s still reason to get our act together. It’s going to take some strong leadership.”

McCright poured cold water on that.

“We’re not going to be doing anything bipartisan of any significance anytime soon on any issue, and we all know that for sure,” McCright said. “That’s just where we’re at.”

After talking with McCright, I was ready for my case of Merlot from Traverse City, but it was only 2 in the afternoon. So instead, I called Lorraine Cameron, an environmental epidemiologist with the Michigan Department of Community Health and champion of grass-roots action on climate change.

“There’s a place for national and international policy, but we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of local activities,” Cameron said.

She pointed to East Lansing’s Climate Sustainability Plan, adopted in April of this year, which lists 12 actions to help the city “strive to meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol targets for reducing global warming pollution by taking actions in our own operations and our community.”

“That’s where all the action is here right now,” Cameron said. “Planners and local health departments aren’t going to deny the connection between greenhouse gases and climate change, but they’re not going to spend a lot of energy fighting that battle.”

Local action is where humans’ bias toward noticing middle-distance action comes in handy. Besides, everything in the plan, from reducing sprawl to cutting carbon emissions to planting more trees and green roofs, ends up making the city more livable anyway.

Planners call these “no-regrets policies” that even skeptics are often happy to sign on to. In a 2009 Joel Pett cartoon for USA Today, a disgruntled critic at a climate change summit scowls at a list of talking points like sustainability, green jobs, healthy children, energy independence and so on. “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” he complains.

I’m not a climatologist, so I can stick my neck out and make predictions. No, there won’t be significant federal action on climate change anytime soon. But there will be great Michigan wine and plenty to do locally to combat global warming. And those consolations are not mutually exclusive.

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