Are We Finally Nearing the Tipping Point on Climate Change?
Part of a Series
If you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will shriek and frantically try to escape. Drop that same frog into a pot of warm water, however, and gradually turn up the heat, and it will drift off to sleep and die.
Some version of that second scenario is happening to us right now. I’m not saying we’re on the brink of perishing, but on a range of issues—from climate change to gun violence to women’s reproductive health—incremental changes have lulled us into complacency, relaxing our sense of danger and weakening our response reflexes.
Pundits call the state we’re in the “new normal.” What they mean is that we get used to things as they are. And if we don’t exactly get comfortable with the status quo, we feel like David in a battle against Goliath.
Case in point: climate change. For several years now, increased pollution from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has been fueling extreme weather across the globe. Droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, and heat waves: Our planet’s weather report is starting to sound like the biblical plagues.
Last month was the 331st month in a row where temperatures rose above the 20th century average. Just this year, the United States suffered “two record heat waves, a record drought, [and] an above-average fire season.”
Then, just before Halloween this year, Hurricane Sandy roared up the East Coast and battered parts of the Midwest. With its ferocious winds and hammering rains, Sandy knocked out power, flooded homes and businesses, triggered fires, tore down trees, and devastated neighborhoods. More than 100 people died. Sandy is estimated to cost around $50 billion in damages Just one week after Sandy hit, another storm ravaged the East Coast—only this time it was a blizzard that inflicted even more damage on the communities ravaged by the hurricane and further hampered efforts to restore power and rebuild homes and businesses.
Concerns about climate change and global warming used to be a bipartisan affair. Republican Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) previously supported a tax on greenhouse gases—known as cap and trade—as did many Democratic lawmakers. Even 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney took global warming seriously and supported cap-and-trade policies when he was governor of Massachusetts.
So what happened?
For one thing, the Tea Party turned up the political heat against those who took global warming seriously and supported policies to slow its effects. According to a Yale University survey, a majority of Tea Party members (53 percent) claim they don’t believe global warming is occurring, and 51 percent say they aren’t worried about it.
What’s more, right-wing forces have coordinated their efforts to deny the reality of climate change, dispute scientific findings, pit environmentalists against God, and oppose common-sense regulations. In addition, until very recently the mainstream media had all but stopped mentioning climate change as a possible connection to the reoccurring instances of recording-breaking extreme weather.
Media silence, combined with fierce climate-change denial and political polarization, has had an effect: More Americans now connect words such as “hoax” to global warming than they did 10 years ago. And although a majority of Americans say they believe climate change is real and should be addressed, there is no strong consensus on how to tackle the problem.
Post-Sandy, however, things are starting to change. Political leaders such as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are urging federal action to help mitigate the effects of global warming. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg said the main reason he endorsed President Barack Obama for re-election was because of his concern about climate change.
In addition, media outlets are starting to connect the dots. In the wake of the superstorm, a dramatic picture of a dark and flooded lower Manhattan appeared on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek, with the huge headline, “IT’S GLOBAL WARMING, STUPID.” NBC anchor Chuck Todd said, “Let’s not bury our head in the sand. It’s called climate change, folks.” CNN and other news outlets are linking climate change to killer storms, while science reporters and talk-show hosts are finding their voices, too.
Other hopeful signs include the defeat of several Tea Party congressional candidates in this year’s election, along with a new carbon auction in California that will put a price on pollution and provide funding for investments in clean energy.
These changes could be evidence of a tipping point—the moment when a number of factors came together to change public opinion. The groundwork is there: solid science, local concern and activism, moral leadership, and a dramatic event.
In terms of moral leadership, faith communities have long seen global warming as one of the most urgent spiritual issues of our time. From Catholics and Jews to Muslims, evangelicals, and others, faith communities have been working to change individual behavior and to advocate for sensible policies to address climate change.
The Evangelical Environmental Network, for instance, ran television ads in swing states during the election campaign defending the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to reduce carbon pollution. Interfaith Moral Action on Climate graded elected officials on their stewardship record and is urging responsible climate leadership. And the Young Evangelicals for Climate Action worked to make the environment a key voting issue among its followers through social media and direct organizing.
Faith groups are also joining forces with labor organizations, businesses, elected officials, and environmental, civil rights, educational, and other groups in the National Climate Summit. It could very well be that the Summit’s call for elected officials to devise a climate plan within their first 100 days in office will now gain traction in Congress. The heat is finally being turned up on the issue of climate change.
Let’s go back to our hapless frog. A burst of heat, if not too late, can snap it awake and propel it out of the boiling pot. Blistered, yes—but still alive.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.
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Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative