A flooded parking garage in New York City following Hurricane Sandy. (Photo by dsgray16 via Creative Commons)
A flooded parking garage in New York City following Hurricane Sandy. (Photo by dsgray16 via Creative Commons)

By Amy Luers
For the Daily Climate

Many climate advocates hope that the recent bout of extreme weather will awaken Americans to the dangers of climate change.

Advocates and scientists have pointed to superstorm Sandy and the Texas drought as clear and present signs of the climate crisis. Although the public does seem to be taking notice, I fear these efforts could backfire if we do not proceed cautiously with our framing around extreme weather and climate change. Our challenge to solve the climate crisis could become more difficult in the end.

How? Let’s consider where efforts to tie extreme weather to climate crisis might lead:

1. Could linking today’s extreme weather with the urgency of the climate crisis lead the public to support policies that reduce emissions?

Probably not. The link between today’s extreme weather and greenhouse gas policy is weak. Policy decisions made today are not going to eliminate or even significantly alter the patterns of these extreme weather events in the next few decades.

This is due to the long lifetime of the heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere coupled with the time it takes to change our societal infrastructure. Furthermore, over the near and medium term, there are more effective ways to respond to extreme weather, namely investing in infrastructure, planning, and institution-building to make communities more resilient.

2. Does focusing on climate and extreme weather motivate the public to investment in resilience?

This may well be true, but one fear of linking the urgency message with extreme weather preparedness is that given our culture of pathological short-termism, this could drive demand for immediate actions that are politically appealing but ultimately unsustainable. After all, the response to a clear and present danger is likely to be a call for a clear and present solution. That is a solution that meets the needs of the here and now.

This was highlighted during a recent discussion with a rancher from Texas I encountered at the Bloomberg Leadership Forum on Water in San Diego, a meeting on water risks for investors. We both spoke about this year’s record drought in Texas. He said one thing they are learning is that you can’t rely on the weather. When I asked him if he thought the recent water crisis was related to climate change he said, “I do not know what is causing it, and I don’t care. We just need to get more water.”

Unfortunately, a response to this urgent need for water could drive demand for unsustainable solutions such as calls to loosen environmental regulations that might be constraining access to resources.

3. Can this extreme weather crisis inspire the American public to care about “peril that human civilization is in,” as Bill McKibben has called it, and motivate more sustainable approaches to resource use?

According to Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, our mental laziness might make this jump difficult. In his recent book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” he explains that most of our decisions and opinions are based on simple and coherent stories developed largely from intuition and cultural associations. The simple and coherent stories that are most likely to emerge in response to increasing floods and droughts might not be so environmentally friendly. For instance, to adapt to droughts people might argue for more dams, to suspend environmental flows, or build new energy-intensive desalinization plants. Or to prepare for floods, we might look to loosen environmental regulations like the Endangered Species Act which constrain disaster management.

Unless we build a culture that values the longer-term, I fear the simple coherent stories emerging from the weird weather will fall neatly into the anti-regulation, anti-environment values that are growing strong in America today.

Climate engagement

I often hear people say, “It’s going to take another Katrina to turn America around on the climate issue.”

Sandy may test this. However, I am afraid that Sandy won’t do it.

We don’t need another weather catastrophe to turn America around. We need a major cultural shift that drives people to passionately care about the storms our grandchildren and other people across the globe will experience when we are gone.

Enabling this cultural shift will require taking a longer-term and broader view toward climate engagement efforts than we have in the past. It will require directing resources to support efforts that strengthen American concerns for future generations and the common good, even those that are not tied to immediate climate benefits. At the same time, we need to prioritize the fight to get money out of politics so that peoples’ voices and values can be heard and so they can be empowered to make the changes they demand.

Dr. Amy Luers is the director of climate change for Skoll Global Threats. She was previously the senior environmental program manager at Google and led the California Climate Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.