Climate Change Consequences Will Far Exceed Many People’s Current Understanding

A new survey reveals that a majority of polled U.S. citizens are skeptical about the Trump administration’s approach to climate action, and those polled continue to support the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). Intended to deter anthropogenic climate change, the CPP would reduce carbon dioxide emissions from electrical power generation by 32 percent within 25 years relative to 2005 levels. It is also destined for elimination, as President Donald Trump signed an executive order on March 28, 2017, that mandated the EPA to review the CPP. Review will serve as the first step to dismantling the CPP.

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The survey about the CPP and other climate issues, conducted by ReportLinker on April 11, reached 535 US online respondents and offered some interesting insights into how US citizens think about our environmental future.

  • More than three quarters of US citizens are now familiar with climate change.
  • Democrats are more likely to be strongly convinced that humans are the main cause of climate change.
  • 1 out of 4 respondents could not name any consequences of climate change.
  • 7 out of 10 Americans defend the Clean Power Act.

While the number of individuals surveyed in this study is relatively small, it does give us insight into the perspectives that many in the US now hold about climate change and the future of our planet for generations to come.

Humans as the Dominant Factor in Climate Change

When asked their level of agreement with the statement, “Humans are the main cause to climate change,” how did people in the ReportLinker survey respond?

  • 76% agreed
  • 26% strongly agreed
  • 50% somewhat agreed
  • 24% disagreed
  • 15% somewhat disagreed

The EPA describes the earth as in the midst of a “balancing act,” acknowledging that recent climate changes “cannot be explained by natural causes alone.” Indeed, the EPA concedes that human activities have been the dominant cause of that warming.

“Since the Industrial Revolution began around 1750, human activities have contributed substantially to climate change by adding CO2 and other heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere. These greenhouse gas emissions have increased the greenhouse effect and caused Earth’s surface temperature to rise. The primary human activity affecting the amount and rate of climate change is greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.”

Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850, according to a climate change physical science report for policymakers submitted to the EPA. What is clear is that, in the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years. The scientists who compiled the report say, “Human influence on the climate system is clear. This is evident from the increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, positive radiative forcing, observed warming, and understanding of the climate system.”

Why do so many people deny that climate change is occurring? Why do affected people, like those people recently chronicled by CNN in Louisiana who make their living from fishing, continue to deny the climate change around them? And, if many in the US still remain unconvinced, how will we save the planet from what Bill McKibben calls “Public Enemy Number One: the fossil fuel industry?”

Why Don’t Some People Believe in Climate Change?

On April 29, 2017, over 100,000 advocates from around the US committed to a People’s Climate March to stand up against President Trump’s fossil-fueled agenda. Yet, at the same time, many in the US deny the truth about progressing warming of the earth’s temperatures.

Several obstacles stand in the way of widespread public understanding of climate change. The topic of climate change is enormous, for one, with lots of data, and data analysis is not easy to communicate to a general audience. Additionally, because the pace of global warming is incremental compared to our daily life experiences, it is difficult for many people to relate to relative temperature differences. And most of our experiences are localized: we may read online headlines about other areas of the globe that are affected by severe weather patterns, for example, but they don’t seem to pertain to our own areas and lives. That’s important: most people in the US form their beliefs about climate change based on local rather than global trends, according to a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In the ReportLinker survey, when asked, “How do you perceive our environmental future?,” this is how people responded:

  • 57% were negative;
  • 11% were very negative;
  • 46% were somewhat negative;
  • 43% were positive;
  • 7% were very positive;
  • 36% were somewhat positive.

According to a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center, no more than a third of the public give climate scientists high marks for their understanding of climate change; even fewer say climate scientists understand the best ways to address climate change. Political divides reach across every dimension of the climate debate, down to people’s basic trust in the motivations that drive climate scientists to conduct their research. In essence, the ReportLinker survey points to significant political and worldview divides about potential devastation of the Earth’s ecosystems and what might be done to address any climate impacts.

What are the Consequences of Climate Change?

NASA describes the effects of climate change as “observable,” with shrinking glaciers, quicker winter ice melting on lakes and rivers, shifts in plant and animal ranges, and earlier tree flowering. In the ReportLinker survey, respondents listed the following consequences of climate change:

  • Higher temperatures: 16%
  • Severity of climate phenomenon: 16%
  • More than 12% of the respondents interviewed named the severity of extreme climate phenomenon, much higher temperatures, and the quality of air as direct effects of climate change
  • 8% of respondents are concerned about the melting of ice caps and the rise of sea level

Yet, even in several red states, local leaders in small- to medium-size communities are already grappling with climate change issues. What’s interesting is that their actions are not always couched in terms of addressing climate change, according to Rebecca J. Romsdahl, Professor of Environmental Science & Policy, University of North Dakota. She says, “In order to address the vulnerabilities facing their communities, many local officials are reframing climate change to fit within existing priorities and budget items.” These frames include energy, economic benefits, common sense, and sustainability, which provide local leaders with the opportunity to address climate change “without getting stuck in the political quagmire. This strategy is being used across the Great Plains states, which include some of the most climate-skeptical areas of the country.”

climate changeWhat are the Likely Long-Term Effects of Climate Change on the US?

The effects of climate change on the planet are taking place, near and far: loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rise, longer and more intense heat waves. Some of the long-term effects of climate change in the United States, as identified by the National Climate Assessment Report, are:

  • Change will continue through this century and beyond: The degree of climate change impact in the second half of the 21st century will depend on the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted globally and how sensitive the Earth’s climate is to those emissions;
  • Temperatures will continue to rise: Each region will experience a slightly different consequence of climate change due to variations in each region’s climate; however, human-induced warming is a certainty;
  • Frost-free season (and growing season) will lengthen: Since the 1980s, ecosystems and agriculture across the United States have been affected by longer growing seasons. As heat-trapping gas emissions continue to grow, increases of a month or more of frost-free growing are projected across most of the US by the end of the century;
  • Changes in precipitation patterns: More winter and spring precipitation is projected for the northern United States, and less for the Southwest, over this century;
  • More droughts and heat waves: Droughts, or periods of abnormally hot weather lasting days to weeks, in the US Southwest are projected to become more intense, while cold waves will become less intense everywhere. Moreover, with summer temperatures projected to continue rising, so, too, will a reduction of soil moisture, which exacerbates heatwaves. What had been once-in-20-year extreme heat days are projected to occur every two or three years over most of the nation;
  • Hurricanes will become stronger and more intense: Category 4 and 5 hurricanes in the North Atlantic have increased since the 1980s and hurricane-associated storm intensity and rainfall rates are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm;
  • Sea level will rise 1–4 feet by 2100: Global sea level has risen by about 8 inches since reliable record keeping began in 1880 and is projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100. Ocean waters will, therefore, continue to warm, and sea level will continue to rise for many centuries at rates equal to or higher than that of the current century.
  • Arctic likely to become ice-free: Before mid-century, the Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer; this is important because Arctic sea ice extent both affects and is affected by global climate change.

climate change

The latter part of the 21st century, as the result of added water from melting land ice and the expansion of seawater as it warms, will see storm surges and high tides that will increase flooding in many regions. Will sea level rise stop by 2100 if we take concerted measures to reduce emission? Unfortunately, no. Sea levels will continue to rise, according to the National Climate Assessment Report, because the oceans take a very long time to respond to warmer conditions at the Earth’s surface. The increases will be considerably smaller, however, if heat-trapping gas emissions are reduced.

Political Divides over Which Actions Could Make a Difference in Addressing Climate Change

Many people refuse to believe that the planet is in the midst of an unalterable global warming trend. Still others may believe in climate change but don’t hold humans responsible. Large numbers of  skeptics decry weather data, climatologists’ analyses, and prediction models, relying instead on misinformation from sites like Breitbart. The Pew Research Center has tried to determine the politics behind climate change views.

  • Power plant emission restrictions − 76% of what Pew terms “liberal” Democrats say power plant emissions can make a substantial difference, while only 29% of “conservative” Republicans concur;
  • An international agreement to limit carbon emissions − 71% of liberal Democrats and 27% of conservative Republicans say international agreements are necessary to addressing global warming;
  • Tougher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks − 67% of liberal Democrats and 27% of conservative Republicans agree that increased CAFE standards are necessary;
  • Corporate tax incentives to encourage businesses to reduce the “carbon footprint” from their activities − 67% of liberal Democrats say this can make a big difference, while 23% of conservative Republicans agree;
  • More people driving hybrid and electric vehicles − 56% of liberal Democrats feel that removing transportation from fossil fuel dependence is necessary, while 23% of conservative Republicans do;
  • People’s individual efforts to reduce their “carbon footprints” as they go about daily life − 52% of liberal Democrats say attending on an individual daily basis to the way we contribute to global warming is important, while 21% of conservative Republicans do.

The Democratic Platform in the 2016 Presidential election viewed climate change as “an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time.” The Party said America should “lead the fight against climate change around the world by reducing greenhouse gas emissions more than 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050” and honoring the Paris Agreement. In contrast, Donald Trump tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.”

The Clean Power Plan and Its Potential

How would the Clean Power Plan help to alleviate climate change? The CPP has as primary objectives to reduce emissions from coal-burning power plants, to increase the use of renewable energy, and to engage robustly in energy conservation. It had been hoped that the CPP would serve as a model to other countries that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide so they would officially pledge to reduce their emissions at places like the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

If enacted, the plan would require individual states to meet specific standards around carbon dioxide emissions. States would be free to choose the means by which they would reduce emissions. With the flexibility the EPA has given the states, they could act individually or in regional groups.  States were to focus on three areas:

  • increasing the generation efficiency of existing fossil fuel plants;
  • substituting lower carbon dioxide emitting natural gas generation for coal powered generation; and,
  • substituting generation from new zero carbon dioxide emitting renewable sources for fossil fuel powered generation.

The EPA had estimated that the Clean Power Plan would reduce the pollutants that contribute to smog and soot by 25 percent. That reduction would lead to net climate and health benefits of an estimated $25 billion to $45 billion per year in 2030. Particular benefits were to have included:

  • avoidance of 140,000 to 150,000 asthma attacks among children;
  • 2,700 to 6,600 premature deaths;
  • $85 per year in average US household energy bill savings in 2030;
  • enough energy saved to power 30 million homes and save consumers $155 billion from 2020–2030;
  • 30% more renewable energy generation in 2030; and,
  • creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs.

According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), for decades, power plants have been allowed to emit unlimited amounts of carbon pollution. They continue to be the top climate polluter in the US, responsible for about 40% of greenhouse emissions in the country. The EPA’s CPP would formalize key standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The EDF lists several groups who are trying to block the CPP. They include:

  • The White House: President Trump has signed an executive order to begin the process of dismantling the CPP;
  • The courts: Polluters have filed suit, claiming among other things that the plan will be too costly;
  • The states: Some state officials are suing to stop the Clean Power Plan, at the same time their colleagues are creating plans to comply with it — they’re pitting some governors against their own attorneys general; and,
  • Congress: Lawmakers opposing the CPP tried to block it through Congressional Review Act resolutions that were vetoed by President Obama and may attempt other methods now.

Now is the time to speak out. Share what you know with others about the reality of climate change and its future affects on our planet. Advocate to keep the Clean Power Act part of the US legislative agenda so that we can reduce dependence on polluting power plants and move toward renewable energy for a healthier future.

Photo credits: Foter.com, Foter.com


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About the Author

Carolyn writes from her home in Chepachet, RI, where she advocates with her lake association for chemical-free solutions to eradicate invasive species. She’s an organic gardener, nature lover, and vegetarian (no red meat since 1980) who draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+