Charles Mann and The Atlantic Miss The Mark in a Confused Climate Change Piece

August 15, 2014
Aaron Huertas
Former contributor

A recent climate change article by Charles C. Mann in The Atlantic left me scratching my head. The title, “How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen” piqued my interest. It’s something I grapple with every day. But instead of focusing on how our public conversations about climate change are shifting, he lingers on what he sees as failed efforts to enact national climate policy. Mann is a serious and respected writer — who happens to work with some of my favorite magazines — so this piece felt like a missed opportunity.

Changing conversations on sea level rise

Mann opens his piece with some research on melting Antarctic ice that recently grabbed headlines. The research in question indicated that major portions of the West Antarctic ice sheet are slated to collapse into the ocean in the coming centuries. Nevertheless, he suggests the Antarctic will contribute just an inch to sea level rise by 2100 and argues that media outlets over-reacted to the research. Regardless of how the research was covered in the press, focusing on the magnitude of sea level rise from just one source while neglecting others simply doesn’t make sense. A combination of ocean warming and glacial ice melt has already caused sea levels to rise 8 inches globally. Sea levels are projected to rise about a foot by the time today’s mortgages are getting paid off. How much more they’ll rise by the end of the century depends largely on our emissions choices and how rapidly glaciers melt.

Mann’s piece could have focused much more on sea level rise. Scientists and policymakers in places like Florida know how to talk about climate change and people are listening. The realities of sea level rise are so obvious that even policymakers who reject the science are softening their position, including Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R).

Similarly, a bi-partisan group of Virginia policymakers recently came together to discuss how the state can deal with increased coastal flooding. My favorite headline from the meeting: “The ocean is swallowing up Virginia so rapidly that its leaders are forgetting to bicker about climate change.”

At the same time, the Department of Defense is doing more to plan ahead for a changing climate, including rising sea levels at naval facilities. When generals and admirals start talking about climate change, people listen, too.

Coastal-States-at-Risk-from-Sea-Level-Rise

What about that decades-long misinformation campaign?

Mann casts disputes over climate policy as a “toxic blend” of “activists, who want to scare Americans into taking action, [coming] up against economists, with their cool calculations of acceptable costs.”

To be clear, plenty of economists support climate policies. They find that taking action to reduce emissions now would be far more prudent than incurring the costs associated with doing nothing, as my colleague Rachel Cleetus has regularly chronicled.

Further, the biggest hurdle for climate policy is not that advocates occasionally overstate the risks associated with climate change, though they do. The people throwing down roadblocks work for fossil fuel companies, their trade groups, and ideological allies with ties to polluting industries, such as Americans for Prosperity. Given the size and scope of their lobbying efforts and their persistent electoral challenges to policymakers who embrace climate policy, they must bear some responsibility for political intransigence on climate issues as well as the fact that 23 percent of Americans are under the impression that climate change is not occurring.

A 1991 ad from Informed Citizens for the Environment, an industry group opposed to climate policy. Source: PolluterWatch

A 1991 ad from Informed Citizens for the Environment, an industry group opposed to climate policy. Source: PolluterWatch

This is an old story, for sure, but that doesn’t make it any less true. It’s also worth pointing out that even when advocates get the science exactly right, opponents of climate policy still label them “Chicken Littles.” They do the same thing to scientists who publicly speak about their research, too.

In this same vein, Mann cites the old canard that warming has temporarily stopped, a claim the SkepticalScience.com has described as one of the “most common” misunderstandings about climate change. Mann ascribes the claim to “critics,” but doesn’t say who they are. In my experience, it’s been the groups listed above that are opposed to climate policy and spread misinformation about climate science. Mann treated their claim far too seriously, as if it was a valid “opposing view” to the science.

Mann also suggests that people who favor climate policy want a decentralized, smaller-scale economy. That might be true for some “deep greens” but it doesn’t represent mainstream opinion among climate advocates. In fact, major corporations, investment groups, and insurance companies are pushing for climate policy, too, and many are already integrating the effects of climate change into their business plans.

Again, they are listening. The conversation is changing.

Ignoring policies that work

Global carbon pricing

Various countries and regions have forms of carbon pricing. Note that this map is from May and in July, Australia moved to repeal its carbon pricing policies. Source: CarbonBrief

Mann reviews the work of Yale economist William Nordhaus, who favors a global carbon price. Mann argues that no such global pricing has even been enacted. While that’s true, Mann neglects policies like California’s cap-and-trade program and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the U.S. Northeast, along with dozens of other programs from around the world.

Further, Mann’s piece offers no discussion of renewable energy. Yet increasing reliance on renewables is one of the cornerstones of Obama Administration climate policy and renewables are a significant building block states can use to comply with forthcoming Environmental Protection Agency carbon rules.

Renewable energy is also another area where the ugly divides on climate policy can sometimes break down. For instance, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) has called climate scientists “frauds,” but at the same time he has vigorously defended and promoted Iowa’s flourishing wind industry.

Toward a rational climate debate

Mann closes his piece by suggesting that the prospect of geo-engineering might be enough to scare policymakers into action. That may be true, but we’re thankfully not there yet.

In the meantime, the realities of observable climate change are already changing how people think and talk about climate change, as well as policy debates at the local and national level.

Mann writes that no one knows “how soon reality will trump ideology” on climate change. It might be happening soon. It’s getting harder to pay for wildfires and coastal flooding, which are being exacerbated by a changing climate. Politicians are slowly backing off rejecting the science as they see how climate change is affecting their constituents.

I agree with some of Mann’s criticism of past mistakes climate policy advocates have made. But overall, his piece missed the mark. More and more people are listening. It’s worth telling their stories.