climate change and public opinion

How people, whether individually or in groups of various sizes, respond to the most obvious threats of climate change — higher temperatures and humidity, floods and droughts, and perhaps most obviously, rising sea levels — is a topic as fascinating as it is important. But there are times when those responses can leapfrog right over unexpected straight into obstinate, self-destructive, and just plain weird. And so it is with some residents of the great state of North Carolina:

On N.C.’s Outer Banks, scary climate-change predictions prompt a change of forecast:

The dangers of climate change were revealed to Willo Kelly in a government conference room in the summer of 2011. By the end of the century, state officials said, the ocean would be 39 inches higher and her home on the Outer Banks would be swamped.

The state had detailed maps to illustrate this claim and was developing a Web site where people could check by street address to see if their property was doomed. There was no talk of salvation, no plan to hold back the tide. The 39-inch forecast was “a death sentence,” Kelly said, “for ever trying to sell your house.”

So Kelly, a lobbyist for Realtors and home builders on the Outer Banks, resolved to prove the forecast wrong. And thus began one of the nation’s most notorious battles over climate change.

Coastal residents joined forces with climate skeptics to attack the science of global warming and persuade North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature to deep-six the 39-inch projection, which had been advanced under the outgoing Democratic governor. Now, the state is working on a new forecast that will look only 30 years out and therefore show the seas rising by no more than eight inches.

Environmentalists are appalled, and North Carolina has been lampooned as a hotbed of greedy developers trying to “outlaw” the rising tide. Some climate-change experts are sympathetic, however, calling the rebellion an understandable reaction to sea-level forecasts that are rapidly becoming both widely available and alarmingly precise.

As always, let me urge you to go read the whole piece and not rely on my excerpting.

As for what one might say about this…

I, for one, have zero sympathy for the people directly affected. While I can certainly understand their motivation — they don’t want to see their property value go to zero in a matter of years — when your response to a very difficult situation is to try to define it away, you’re nothing more or less than a myopic, greedy climate change denier.

But taking a step back from the details in this story, this is a perfect example of a situation I’ve been stressing for some time: One of the worst aspects of climate change impacts is that they invalidate the assumptions that underlie much of our physical infrastructure.

You want to put a thermoelectric (coal, natural gas, nuclear) power plant on this river, because there will always be enough water to cool it? Sounds great! Or at least it does until the water is so hot or there’s so little of it that you can’t operate the plant, and it has to shut down for days to weeks to months at a time, something we’ve seen happen repeatedly in various countries (including the US0 over the last decade.

Want to put a city of millions of people right on the coastline, where people can get a great view of the ocean from their house or condo or hotel room? Sounds great! Until sea level rise wipes out the whole community or forces you to spend immense amounts of money building sea walls.

There’s a lot of nice, flat land here — let’s use it for farms! As people in Bangladesh are just beginning to find out, when you have half the population of the US in a country the size of Iowa, as Heidi Cullen points out in her book The Weather of the Future, sea level rise can displace not just a lot of people but end a major portion of your food production.

Maybe it’s OK to limit ourselves to, say, drilling municipal water wells? Sure, until saltwater intrusion starts to poison the aquifers in places like the southeast US, causing us to abandon wells or install expensive treatment plants.

I’m sure people can find many other examples of this syndrome, of our own actions (pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as if it were an infinitely large, free sewer) triggering impacts that seemingly pull the rug out from under us. And all of this points to a fundamental issue with climate change that I think doesn’t get nearly enough attention: Many people who feel threatened by climate change impacts feel that it’s somehow “not fair”. Sure, they drive a big ol’ SUV and keep their air conditioning set at 70F all summer long and generally lead a carbon intensive lifestyle, but golly, they didn’t do anything to deserve losing their home or job or access to affordable food. There must be some way they can appeal this in a court of law, declare moral Chapter 11 bankruptcy, or take a page from American football and throw a coach’s challenge flag and have someone review the tape and overturn the situation. This is America, after all, where not only do we believe in and allow for second acts, despite what F. Scott Fitzgerald famously claimed, we think and act as if we were entitled to as many acts as we want to keep reinventing ourselves and escaping the consequences of our past actions. Sadly, the natural world is stunningly indifferent to our desires, a brutal reality that far too many of us have yet to appreciate fully.

Photo Credit: Climate Change Opinions and Evidence/shutterstock