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Please Stop Talking About Global Warming

Question: why don’t people talk more about climate change?

It seems to me like something that should be a constant topic of conversation these days, especially given that 2010 was the biggest year ever for global CO2 output, exceeding the worst scenarios scientists had concocted. Yet whenever I bring it up – on Twitter, with friends, on this blog, wherever – I feel almost as though I’m talking about Bigfoot sightings or something.

Actually no: Bigfoot talk goes over much better than mentioning global warming. Bigfoot talk at least gets a flicker interest from people. Global warming is just met with awkward silence, followed by an abrupt shift in conversation to the hilarious things cats do or some such topic. It’s a serious conversational transgression. Like talking about a wart or something.

The question is why?

There are many answers: the global warming issue doesn’t have any human characters so there’s no story to follow, it’s too big and slow moving to pique interest, there’s no sex in it, it feels very vague. And it doesn’t have cats doing hilarious things. All real problems when it comes to capturing and holding people’s attention.

But a big issue I think is with the term: global warming. Anything that’s global is by definition Someone Else’s Problem. Whose, exactly? Not sure. The UN or someone. Bono. I don’t know, but not me.

So if it’s not my problem, I’m not going to think about it, right? And I’m sure as hell not going to talk about it.

But it occurred to me: what if we broke it down, and started referring to it locally? What if we thought and spoke not in terms of “global” warming but New York warming, or San Francisco warming or London warming? What if we were all aware of what our city’s “warming” was for that year? How much CO2 our locale was producing, and the local temperature for the year relative to historical norms?

It seems like that might bring it down to the human level, make it more personal, more social. People might say to each other “Jesus, did you see our warming this year? Fucking outrageous. Off the map.” People might compare their city’s warming to other cities’ warming. Mayors would be forced to get up once a year and talk about how their city’s warming was 7% better than last year, certainly better than when Giuliani was mayor, blah blah blah, just to get re-elected.

People don’t take ownership of anything at the global level. But at the local level they do. They have local pride, they have local interest. They want their city to be the best, better than the city down the road. Global anything is boring. Local is interesting.

I did a search online for graphs or visualizations of CO2 output by city. Didn’t come up with anything. I did come up with this cool/scary video, but it doesn’t really do the whole local idea justice. (Skip to 1:20 for the good stuff.)

Could someone do a visualization of CO2 output by city? In realtime even? Could someone plot the total CO2 output for various cities and post them online, create a “best” and “worst” list, update them annually?

That would be interesting to this local person.

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Profile Photo Stefany M. Mercer

Wow! Excellent post, John! 😀 I appreciate your appeal to change the climate change/global warming nomenclature, but wouldn’t reducing the problem from the global to the local level negate the boundary-less nature of the problem? I mean, America is one of the largest global polluters, but other less industrialized areas still feel the consequences of our dirty behavior globally. That’s not even considering the impact of China’s evolving industrial revolution! x.x

Do you think there is a way to rectify this idea/language gap?

Thanks for playing,

Stefany

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Profile Photo Mark Hammer

At one level, “global warming” tends to provoke more concern than “climate change”. After all, climate changes. or rather, weather normally changes, and we tend to confuse that with climate. “Warming” sounds like something running away from us. And if it’s global, well that’s just worse, isn’t it. I’m not being trite, but rather pondering how the associations between words and ideas leads people to have their attention captured…or not.

At least some of the resistance to taking climate change seriously probably IS due to the use of the term “global warming”. All it takes is one or two days of unseasonably cold weather, a freezing rain in Texas or whatever, for people to mutter “Yeah, THERE’s your global warming!” with a cynical undertone. Their assumption, provoked by “global warming” is that, for the concept to be valid, things should simply never cool down, and if they do, well then the concept is invalid.

Truth be told, climate change is mostly felt AS warming by those in polar areas. Certainly people in Canada’s north, I imagine in Alaska too, experience it as progressive warming, the disappearance of ice, snowmobile drownings (falling through what would have historically been thicker ice), and the appearance of species that would not normally appear (including insects not traditionally found in the north).

In that respect, “climate change” is closer to what is actually happening more generally, and a term more tolerant of the global variance in weather, and perhaps less likely to engender simplistic disregard.

Whenever I speak to doubters, the model/analog I like to use is that of skin. We tend to think about climate as if it was the same as weather, and weather is what happens where we live, or are travelling to., in isolated pockets Climate is all connected, like skin, without interruption. Poke yourself in one part, and everything within a given distance is stretched, because of that connection. As such, people can expect not just heat but increasingly unpredictable weather and less reliable seasonal change as local circumstancs get affected by something happening over there, and over there, and over there.

Just consider the extent to which all those species – flora and fauna – we and everyone else depend on for our food sources have evolved predicated on predictable average seasonal properties, including not only anticipated temperature, but anticipated consistency of temperature, anticipated precipitation, and anticipated duration. Change the way climate expresses itself, and you change the breeding cycle, and the relative hardiness of crops that evolved under historical conditions. Sure we can always breed new strains of wheat and other seed-based crops, but oranges, grapes, olives, nut trees, apples, and so much more all evolved under far more predictable conditions. Obviously the day length aspect of seasons will remain invariant, but that evolution was not based on daylength alone.

So it IS the “change” that is problematic. You have to wonder if it’s time to chuck your farmer’s almanac.

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Profile Photo John Geraci

Hi Stefany: yes the consequences of the problem are boundary-less (global), but the origins of the problem are local, no? Each city (or state, or country, or neighborhood) has its own carbon footprint, based on the amount of fossil fuel resources it uses. That’s something each area can and should take ownership over, IMO. And addressing it at the city level feels right somehow to me. Talking about it “globally” feels way too big. Even talking at the country level feels too big. And conversely, talking about it at the level of individual people feels too small. But the urban level feels just right to me – the level at which the conversation should be taking place. That’s the level where individuals can act, those actions can have an impact, and that impact can add up to something big. (And thanks – glad you enjoyed the post…)

Kathrine: I agree. Apparently I should have titled the post something about how funny cats are, and omitted the reference to global warming altogether…

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Profile Photo MatrixIP

John

Thank you for your bravery in bringing up this important topic in such an influential forum. Unfortunately the issue is looked on as the problem for future generations (so let them solve it!), however the problems are of our making and if we want to provide a better (equivalent life style) world for our children we need to start the improvement process NOW.

(Global) Climate change rather than Global Warming is probably more understandable and describes what is happening. Perhaps people can relate to this (on a global basis). But I agree with your approach.

“Think globally, act locally”.

I am currently reading a fabulous book on a solution to climate change. Why is it fabulous? Because not only does it put the whole climate change scenario into a rational perspective but it also suggests “solutions” to the problems and provides a ray of hope that there is a sensible way out of the “mess” we find ourselves in.

The book is called the “Third Industrial Revolution …” by Jeremy Rifkin. I would recommend that all (skeptics and believers) have a read, and decide what they (each individual) can do.

Regards

From an Aussie and a concerned citizen of the world.

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Profile Photo Stefany M. Mercer

@John:

You make a valid point when considering the appropriate target level for eco-action, and I agree that urban areas do need focused strategies for fighting developmental pollution. City/State level (i.e., a more decentralized approach) planning will allow for more specific, and thus probably more effective, action plans, but I think we really need to attach the pollution/enviro problems from multiple angles. The cities won’t be able to clean up their areas without individual participation of the citizens – unless we’re discussing pure regulatory action, but will that even really be effective without grassroots support? O.o

Likewise, how will the global problem be resolved without macrolevel clean up? Is it really fair/effective to have spotty microparticipation? IDK, but IMO, if the problem looks too BIG, then we need to compartmentalize it and work out plans on the specific issues. Plus, we need to remember that these eco-issues developed alongside centuries-worth of human activities and will take some significant time & resources to undo.

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Profile Photo MatrixIP

I keep coming back to your post, because I like it. It is a shame it is only attracting minimal comment. That worries me. We do need to lift the profile of climate change and get the general public’s attention. We need to start with the learned readers of Govloop discussions.

What I ignored in my first post on this issue is your wonderful suggestion that we need to set up some important KPIs to track the issue. Your suggestion that we track CO2 levels by city and have a good/bad list is a wonderful idea, This then brings the issue down to a relative local level where cities/people can appreciate their contribution to the issue.

Then we need to provide “good” science on why high CO2 levels are “killing us” (or something a little less dramatic). Then local people can be advised and get involved.

I work at the local government level and this is where “the rubber hits the road” and where a problem like this needs to be and will eventually be solved. But we do need data and quality information to drive people and organisations at this level.

Keep up the good work and surely there are some smart people out there who can delivery the local CO2 data and ongoing monitoring (in a readily digestible format) we need!

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Profile Photo John Geraci

Thanks MatrixIP.

I somehow find myself going to a small meeting with Al Gore tomorrow. Maybe I’ll mention this to him if I get the chance and see if it gets any flickers of interest.

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Profile Photo MatrixIP

Thought this was worth sharing from an Aussie perspective;

I currently spend my time working at the local government level helping them solve real problems that affect local communities. This is where we need to be having the “Climate Change” debate. Even here in Aus the radio announcers are pushing the Big oil/BIG energy line, because they are indoctrinated and it sounds like a more convincing argument.

The climate change fraternity are less vocal and less well informed (on the issues) and less supported. This is where my focus is currently but it is hard to achieve a lot without the support of the other levels of government.

Australia is a good environment for discussion as the Feds are on side, having just introduced a “contoversial” carbon tax on Australian polluters (comes in July 1st next year).

Regards and “keep thinking innovation” for solving the climate/world environment issues.

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