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How some scientists are trying to get us to care about climate change
Despite life-or-death warnings to curb climate change, the western world isn’t responding as urgently as many climate scientists are hoping.
Rising sea levels and the recent string of record-breaking global temperatures aren’t resonating enough, a conservation scientist and educator said in a phone interview with CTVNews.ca.
“Showing photos of decimated coral reef will tug at your heartstrings, but I'm not sure if it will actually change the way you vote or the choices that you really make,” said Sanjayan Muttulingam, CEO of Conservation International, a non-profit that works to protect natural resources for people’s livelihood and food.
This seems to be confirmed by the alarming admission from scientists that Canada is nowhere close to its own targets in fighting climate change. According to Muttulingam, westerners would change their behaviours if they “fully appreciated how this is impacting their own lives in a real way.”
CTVNews.ca spoke to Muttulingam and a climate change economics professor who both say they’re part of a growing cohort attempting to answer people who are bluntly asking: “Who cares? How’ll this actually affect me?”
They’re hoping to re-frame the scientific conversation by explaining how climate change is ruining the things people love and impacting their personal finances.
“Science isn't science, until it's communicated,” Muttulingam argued. But by failing to always put “humans at the centre of the equation,” he believes scientists inadvertently misjudged their audience.
“When it starts hitting our pocketbooks, our jobs, or the health of our children, that's when you are going to start seeing consumers more willing to act than ever,” he said.
Beer and coffee: future luxury items?
One key way to potentially get people to care about climate change is showing how the foods which they take for granted such as chocolate, coffee, wine, avocados, meat, and beer will become luxury items due to the effects of a warming planet.
“The research is really to alarm people in the U.S. and Canada, if they still want to have the same quality of life they have right now,” the study’s co-author Dabo Guan, a climate change economics professor at the University of East Anglia in England, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.
He considers beer among “luxury essentials” because people don’t need it to live but it’s a key part of “social entertainment and even social stability.”
Guan said climate change research involving food has mostly focused on crop yield which can have life-or-death consequences for people. But research has been less focused on higher-quality crops — “more sensitive to climate change” — which are used in processed foods like beer, chocolate and coffee.
Muttulingam agreed and called these items staples of “everyday minimal living” and “expected parts of life, just as having bread for a sandwich would be part of life.” And driving that point home could reframe the conversation for people on the sidelines, he said.
Scientist: Make it about the economy
Muttulingam said scientists need to do more to show how climate change is intertwined with people’s top priorities, including jobs, “your taxes, what money you're taking home and the impact to you this year and the next year.”
For example, activists need to hammer home the message that for people living in coastal areas hit by increasingly stronger storms, not responding to climate changes means a spike in insurance rates. Non-coastal residents may also be hit with higher taxes to “help folks who are in more serious conditions” as a result of storm damage.
Climate change researchers also need to showcase potentially big savings for people: taking action to conserve the environment can lead to a more affordable cost of living, scientists say. There is money to be made thanks to green jobs and energy independence through solar panels or wind power.
“There's far more jobs to be had in tapping the abundant free energy that's floating around on this planet” than people realize, Muttulingam said.
Climate change is affecting our health
Another aspect that shouldn’t be overlooked is putting a face to how climate change threatens good health, clean water and air and increases deaths, Muttulingam said.
Heat waves, forest fires, flooding, and exposure to fine pollutants — which can increase premature deaths from heart disease, strokes or lung cancer — all threaten lives around the globe, according to The Lancet’s most recent report on health and climate change.
To spur on parents to act, Muttulingam urged educators not to shy away from conveying how children are unwittingly on the front lines of the climate change effects: they face a higher risk of asthma and air pollution has led to 600,000 children dying annually.
In November, Muttulingam saw how alarming it was for people to see children and adults in face masks to protect themselves from wide-spread pollution in San Francisco, which forced the closures of schools, universities and museums.
“It's very real. You definitely get the sense that something dramatic has just happened,” he said.
Learning to understand the long-term impacts
Scientists might also need to concede that people have difficulty grasping abstract ideas and planning for decades ahead, Muttulingam said.
“We consistently underestimate long-term risk and consistently overestimate short-term risk … we just haven't evolved to be able to deal with that,” he said, calling for more research and predictive models to focus on the immediate future, or in two-year outlooks.
Additionally, Guan said that for scientists to get climate change from the abstract world to the practical one, it will require more multidisciplinary research that can help develop a clearer narrative for people.
For Guan’s own beer study, he wrangled experts in crop growth, climate patterns and economics who all helped develop an encompassing, down-to-earth message: less barley crops will lead to more expensive beer.
To this end, Muttulingam said scientists need to realize climate science in written reports and peer-reviewed articles are a great first step but aren’t the “most effective way to communicate in a hyper connected world.”
He urged scientists to use every tool at their disposal to educate the public, including videos and targeting climate research to different demographics based on what is important to them.
Why the western world needs to lead on this
Guan said there is an urgency to “make sustainable consumption fashionable” to the average person, particularly in the developed world. This is important because it could lead to changes in government attitudes, more adherence to the science and potentially starting a trend that could be adopted by developing countries.
Canadian greenhouse-gas emissions make up only 1.6 per cent of the global GHGs so even cutting them by 50 per cent wouldn’t be that significant to the world overall, according to one analysis from the Lawrence National Centre for Policy and Management at Western University. But Guan said the hope is to influence the emerging consumerist lifestyles of nearly 1.4 billion Chinese people and 1.3 billion people in India.
“They want our lifestyles … but unfortunately we only have one planet,” Guan said, referencing developed countries’ rate of greenhouse gas emissions and eating habits. “The planet is not going to have enough resources to have over two billion more people with our lifestyles.”
One study showed how the developing world can’t sustainably have the same living standards as the West. So Guan said westerners need to curb their own negative impact on the environment.
Otherwise, Guan said, it’s “going to be a disaster. We’d all need to all go to Mars basically.”