A Chilling Experience January 13, 2009Posted by Jamie Friedland in Climate Change, Election, Politics.
Tags: Antarctica, CI, Climate Change, Conservation International, COP14, COP15, Copenhagen, Drake Passage, Drake's Passage, Global Warming, ILCP, International League of Conservation Photographers, Kyoto Protocol, National Geographic, Politics, Poznan
My family does not take normal vacations. Many people head home for the holidays, go skiing or perhaps seek warmer weather on a beach somewhere. I spent much of my winter break aboard a small ship called the National Geographic Endeavour exploring Antarctica. Yes, it was cold, but at the time it was actually warmer there than at home thanks to the Southern hemisphere summer and an impressive winter storm here in the U.S. Apparently if you’re from Chicago, flying south for the winter works no matter how far you go.
Christmas Day found us returning to Argentina via the Drake Passage, home of some of the world’s most violent nautical conditions. We had relatively mild crossings-strong but favorable winds and mere 20-foot seas, but even these were sufficient to put most people in bed (or the bathroom) with a seasickness that trumped preventative medication. And we were lucky.
Storms in the Drake are frequent and powerful, capable of generating sustained swells of 60 feet and rogue waves much larger. In 2001, the Endeavour herself was struck by a wave over 100 feet tall and had to be escorted back into port by the Chilean navy. The two-day trip through the Drake each way is the supplemental price to visit the White Continent.
As one might expect, the group of people who opt for such adventures is largely self-selecting: suffice it to say that politics were a safe topic for conversation. Although I did befriend a future petroleum engineer from the University of Texas who was quite cavalier with his indifference towards climate change, even he voted for Obama. And he was certainly an outlier.
The passengers on board were generally well educated and environmentally aware. The extreme to this side of spectrum was the president of Conservation International, traveling with his family. His wife founded and directs the International League of Conservation Photographers, a group of conservation photographers who use images to raise awareness about underreported environmental crises. Once we’d entered the calmer waters past Cape Horn, she showed one of their presentations about climate change.
After the video, another woman approached her and asked a question to the effect of, “Are people really causing global warming? I’ve heard that it’s natural.” Apparently disbelief was visible on my face, because I found myself sharing a silent moment of frustration with an MIT professor who had also overheard the query.
Statistically, this misinformed woman is not unusual. While a majority of Americans now accept that climate change is occurring, a May 2008 Pew poll found that only 47% of Americans correctly attribute some of this warming to human causes. Responses were highly correlated with political party affiliation: broken down, that 47% included 58% of Democrats and just 27% of Republicans polled. It should not be surprising to hear, then, that the domestic political debate on climate change is in a word disgraceful and pollutes discussion about every facet of the issue.
The concept of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change via fossil fuel emissions was first theorized as early as 1896 by the Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius. It has been recognized as a major problem for decades. The question of whether it is happening should be (and really is) long settled, but America stubbornly rejects this reality. And despite some obstructive political postures abroad, no other country can claim to foment such indefensible, inertial denial as ours. At least the international conversation has advanced some during the last 113 years.
Last month, representatives from about 190 countries convened at the United Nations climate negotiations in Poznan, Poland, to discuss climate change. Brazil and Mexico chose this forum to announce concrete plans to reduce their national emissions. South Africa and South Korea released their own plans just this summer, joining the larger standing commitment of the European Union. Despite some shortcomings, the Poznan convention set the stage for a meeting next December in Copenhagen, at which the group hopes to formulate a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.
Yet for all the climate progress around the world, enthusiasm is often short-lived. Personally, interactions like that I overheard aboard the Endeavour always temper what optimism I may have had. America will not act on global warming if its citizens (and politicians) don’t understand the basic facts about fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect; people will not tolerate emissions reductions if they don’t think greenhouse gases cause climate change or that it’s not a problem. And even on a holiday cruise in the Southern Ocean, which ought to be a hotbed of-to borrow an ultraconservative term-“enviro-facism,” I discovered a woman who does not understand that people are causing global warming.
In the coming months, I plan to examine the causes and consequences of a misinformed American public, as they will certainly continue to frame political and environmental events both in the US and around the world. Only with broad public support can we enact policy strong enough to avert whatever future climate effects may otherwise manifest themselves. I hope to be wrong, but I don’t think America today is ready to embrace the changes we really need.
So we have some work to do. And one week from today, we will finally have a president who understands this.
A version of this post ran in The Chronicle at Duke University.