World needs to get its shit together on climate change

The effects of drought on maize on an experimental plot at the the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute's Kiboko Research Station.
The effects of drought on maize on an experimental plot at the the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute’s Kiboko Research Station.
Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT

Another week. Another meeting. Another paper. Another warning that climate change is a big deal.

It’s the annoying broken record playing in the background so quietly that most people don’t hear it. The few that do hear the repeated calls for immediate action to slow down the progress of climate change are trying to make the world’s leaders pay attention and actually do something.

The latest warning comes in the form of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In far more technical terms, the hundreds of scientists who participated in the report agree that we are all screwed if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut. This will have an impact in every part of the world, falling hardest on the world’s poor who are already vulnerable to shocks like erratic rains, droughts and natural disasters.

It is careful to say that climate change alone is not going to doom the world. There are other factors that are already making things hard for some people, from lack of economic opportunity to inadequate healthcare access. These are the kind of areas where worldwide progress has been made, but are at risk if climate change is not reigned in.

For his part, Columbia University’s Steven Cohen is a glass half-full kind of guy when it comes to climate change. The Executive Director of the Earth Institute blogged about his optimism in the Huffington Post following the post-IPCC report hysteria. In it, Cohen said he believes solutions will be found to the problem that go well beyond simply reducing the amount of carbon we toss up into the air.

“The issue we face is not our survival, but our willingness to accept the final triumph of technology at the expense of the planet we are biologically and emotionally connected to. Currently, we do not have the technology to supplant nature. For that reason, and possibly others, the IPCC’s projections do not consider the possibility that natural systems could be replaced by artificial ones,” he wrote.

While other countries are taking action on climate change, the US still is debating whether or not it is actually a problem. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, climate change deniers have been successful in slowing down any semblance of progress. A report on Wednesday by the climate change skeptics at the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change essentially sought to refute the IPCC report.

“Carbon dioxide does not cause weather to become more extreme, is not causing polar ice and sea ice to melt, is not causing sea level rises to accelerate,” said Joseph Bast of the Heartland Institute (the climate change skeptical group behind the report) at an even for the report’s release.

One notable opportunity is the Indonesia Climate Change Trust Fund (ICCTF). The fund is made up of a partnership between the government of Indonesia and donors. With only $22 million in the fund, it is quite small for a country of roughly 250 million people. However, its progress and implementation are being closely watched as a model for what other countries should do in regards to dealing with climate change on their own.

An analysis from the London-based Overseas Development Institute is optimistic about the potential of the ICCTF. Its authors found that the fund faced some challenges in terms of coordination between government institutions. That has slowed down the progress towards developing a climate change strategy in the country and figuring out where the ICCTF fits in its implementation.

“Our analysis confirms that creating an effective national climate fund is a complex and iterative process that requires commitment from both national stakeholders as well as contributors of finance and international funders,” concludes the paper.

Hand-wringing has yet to convince skeptics like Bast that climate change is a real problem that needs to be dealt with today. That is why Showtime is taking a try at opening up discussions about climate change by employing Hollywood actors.

The first episode of Years of Living Dangerously can been seen in full (above). It features Harrison Ford and Don Cheadle, who speak with experts about the climate and use themselves as the tellers of the story. Viewers are taken to Texas, Syria and Indonesia to not just discuss, but see the effects that climate change is having on the world. The series is the result of a collaboration between a pair 60 Minutes producers, David Gelber and Joel Bach, who want Americans to not only pay attention but start to give a shit about climate change.

Their use of famous actors is an intentional way to make a personal connection between the viewer and the issue.

“Ford is tromping around Indonesia, interviewing the president of the country and taking on the forestry minister. Harrison gets agitated by what he sees and gets really wound up and you can’t take your eyes off of him,” explained Bach to Andrew Revkin of the New York Times.

Maybe it will do the trick. Though I wouldn’t bet on it. As Ezra Klein explained in a Vox column earlier this week, politics makes us stupid. When facts are laid out in front of us, we are good at picking through them to make the right conclusion. If the same facts are shown in regards to a political issue, we tend to toss out the inconvenient parts and focus on what we already thing is the truth, even if we are wrong.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.