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Nicholas Kerr

Big little climate lies

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In episode 3 of this season’s star-studded HBO show ‘Big Little Lies’, Renata (played by Laura Dern) explodes when her daughter, Amabella, is hospitalized after suffering a panic attack as a result of her second grade teacher’s discussion about what global warming might do to the world. This leads the principal to call a school assembly where he’s confronted by parents who are up in arms about how their elementary school children are also having difficulty processing these lessons.

While the storyline might sound over-the-top, it’s more accurate to describe it as a case of art imitating life. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenage activist, has explained that she first heard about climate change at age 8 and by 11 was so depressed by it she stopped talking.

An old childhood friend, Dr. Joshua Betts, practices medicine in Australia and this year posted on Facebook about his experiences:

Recently I have had a number of teenage patients break down in my consulting rooms, overcome with despair at the thought that the world will end in their lifetime. My daughter and her friends tell me how the planet is being destroyed and we are all doomed. These thoughts and beliefs feed into a vortex of anxiety and uncertainty that is crippling many young people… We need to protect our children, give them hope and strength for the future rather than hatred for their fellow man and contempt for science and industry. This doesn’t mean wearing rose colored glasses and putting our heads in the sand, but instead framing the issues in a rational way where the most likely outcomes are highlighted, rather than the worst case scenario of environmental Armageddon.

Unfortunately, here in Washington, implausible doomsday scenarios make front page news, such as June’s Seattle Times headline, “Seattle heat waves could kill hundreds”. It referred to a study which predicted that by the year 2100 more than 700 people would die in each local extreme heat event. A professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington, Cliff Mass, quickly observed that the work was riddled with errors, which should have given the newspaper pause before publishing such a dramatic article.

Mass pointed out obvious red flags such as the study’s climate simulations predicting Seattle having more extreme warm days than LA and San Francisco, or Boston’s extreme days exceeding Dalllas’s. But it also assumed that residents of Seattle wouldn’t do what residents of every city that experiences hot summers have done—install air conditioning and adapt to the heat in other ways.

Let’s not forget that this forecast is 80 years hence, when we’ll all be considerably wealthier and the cost of air conditioning will almost certainly have dramatically fallen. History would suggest that new technologies to help us adjust are likely to have been invented as well.

In addition to heeding Dr. Betts’s advice about highlighting the most likely outcomes, we should provide both children and adults with a full picture of the issue of climate change so they can properly assess future news stories. That should include understanding that warming will result in both costs and benefits, where and when warming is likely to occur, and that some climate change is due to entirely natural causes.

On this last point, when discussing warming locally we should note that two former University of Washington scientists recently concluded that on the West Coast the increase in temperature since 1900 has been entirely due to changes in winds and air circulation over the eastern Pacific Ocean. As co-author Nate Mantua said in 2014, “We do not see a human hand in the warming of the West Coast”. Although most scientists believe man has played some role in warming at a global level, discussions about how to address any future warming here, therefore, should include policies that will help us adapt.

While warming might lead to heat related deaths, especially if we fail to adapt, far more people perish annually during cold winter months, so some warming may be a net positive. It’s important to understand that when scientists talk about future warming, their models are predicting most of it to take place in certain places and at certain times. Specifically, most temperatures are expected to increase in the winter, during the night and in places that are cold. As a result, not only will temperatures be less extreme, but researchers have estimated there will be 1.4 million fewer deaths annually.

Discussing the most likely outcomes of climate change and highlighting both costs and benefits will help our children better process this subject and prevent unnecessary extreme anxiety. Such an approach would also be beneficial for adults in assessing the best policies for addressing warming. Predictions of worse case scenarios over the past 30 years by environmental groups and politicians have been counterproductive to their cause. Like the boy who cried wolf, when these predictions don’t come to pass, too many people tune out, which is why global warming continues to rank at the bottom of voters’ policy priorities.

This article was first published HERE.