Earth Day was first celebrated in 1970, after it was created to draw attention to worsening environmental problems. Now, over 50 years later (yes, really), it seems to have been successful. Not only are environmental and conservation issues widely talked about – we have actually seen people work together to fix or lessen some of the most daunting problems. The ozone hole and acid rain, while not fully solved, are not the pressing concerns they once were*. The Clean Water Act has drastically cleaned up our waterways. Bald eagles, once on the brink of extinction, are now a fairly common sight in Columbus. So how is it that we were able to unite across international lines to reduce contaminants such as CFCs, smog, and DDT enough to make noticeable improvements, but we can’t seem to agree on what to do about climate change?
There are many reasons that this is a more complex problem than others we have faced, but we’re only going to discuss one broad topic here: Salience. Several decades ago, environmental degradation was visible. It wasn’t hard to convince people that rivers should not be flammable, and air should not make people sick. Environmental protections had widespread (and bipartisan) support. Climate change is much harder to see. By definition, climate is difficult to perceive; it is the general weather conditions in an area over a long period of time. Each day, the weather is different (or, if you’re in Ohio, it can change by the hour), and individual points in time are not representative of the climate of an area. Another complicating factor is human psychology. We are highly adaptable to our environments, which is a useful trait, but it makes us oblivious to long-term changes that happen relatively slowly. Perhaps our biggest obstacle is our perception of time. A lifetime for us is less than the blink of an eye on a geologic (and climatologic) scale. Our perception of time is, perhaps, our biggest limiting factor.
We sat down to discuss this with Dr. Bryan Mark**, whose credentials include Ohio State professor and researcher, State Climatologist of Ohio, and most recently, Ecohouse Solar Customer. Several years ago, he gave a Ted Talk on this topic:
The first thing we wanted to ask him about was the latest portion of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Sixth Assessment Report. The IPCC chair, Hoesun Lee had said “This report is a dire warning about the consequences of inaction…. It shows that climate change is a grave and mounting threat to our wellbeing and a healthy planet.” But why the renewed sense of urgency?
“It’s nothing new, just more certain and more urgent” Dr. Mark told us. “[Climatologists] are collecting more and more evidence.” He went on to say that while skepticism is important to science, the further research has only affirmed and underscored an increased urgency for us to act. Advances in attribution science (a field of research that seeks to understand which effects can be definitively linked to causes) have allowed researchers to attribute climate change more precisely to greenhouse gas emissions by human activity. “Single events are not caused by climate change, but the background is amped up,” Dr. Mark explained. This is similar to athletes using steroids; while we can’t say that any individual pass or home run was directly caused by the use of steroids, increases in frequency over time can be attributed to the elevated performance level that steroids would allow. Climatologists have worked and reworked the models and have found the same thing: without human activity and greenhouse gas emissions, we would not have the background changes that we are seeing – even if any one storm, wildfire, our drought cannot be directly attributed to these factors. It is, however, the increased frequency in catastrophic weather events that people can see that has encouraged more politicians and media figures to accept that humans are changing the global climate. “Well… they believe it now.”
Believing that human civilization is causing climate change and talking about it is one thing, but there still seems to be a lack of concrete action. What we have here is not a scientific problem, but a collective action problem. Dr. Mark (and many environmental psychologists and sociologists) reminds us that climate change is a social problem. “There’s a perception that we can regulate it from the top…. But when we start to see action and change, it is often at subnational levels.” This rings true – the City of Columbus released its first Climate Action Plan in 2021. We are seeing more and more people take individual action. Most importantly, making changes at the individual level has become more widely accessible to more people. When we asked Dr. Mark why he chose to go solar now, his answer was familiar: the individual and environmental benefits are now worth the economic cost.
So… what can we do? The scale of the problem compared to our ability to act can make our actions feel trivial. On the other hand, we hold a lot of sway within our social circles and communities. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of people do not have to be dedicated to a cause to enact significant change. 25% of a population seems to be the “tipping point” that can effectively change social norms. That means if you know 20 of your neighbors, only five people need to support a cause to make it happen. We should be talking to our neighbors, friends, family, and colleagues, and calling our representatives about cleaner cities, removing barriers to solar and other alternative energy sources, or advocating for any other environmental clean-up projects that may be relevant in your neighborhood. This brings to mind a poignant quote from author David Mitchell: “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?”
*Note: There are regional differences in impact. Areas with less stringent air quality policies are still impacted by acid deposition with rainwater.
**Full disclosure: The author took a climatology course with Dr. Mark at OSU in 2018.