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Climate Change Gets Personal

Is Action on the Horizon?

Former US Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill coined the phrase “All Politics is Local.” Perhaps future action to mitigate the effects of climate change will rest on his insight. If local communities are not concerned about climate change, there will be no groundswell demanding action — people won’t worry about problems that do not affect them. But when personal security and livelihoods are threatened by extreme weather, wildfires, droughts, and floods, people will demand action from the ground level up. Communities will push local and state governments to respond, and politicians elected to represent those communities at the federal level will feel the heat from their constituents.

Political will for change seems to be on the rise globally, according to a Pew Research Center survey sampling 20,000 people in 17 countries. Still, unfortunately, the level of concern in the US remains the same as in 2015. As would be expected, US opinions on threats posed by climate change split along the red-blue ideological divide.

Whether opinions will shift after another summer of heatwaves, drought, wildfires, and catastrophic tropical storms remains to be seen. Impacts from these events were widespread this summer. Heatwaves in the Pacific Northwest blew away previous high-temperature records, and on the East Coast, over 50 people died in flooding from Hurricane Ida. Louisiana coastal communities barely had time to let floodwaters from one disaster drain away before the next storm made landfall as Hurricane Ida and Tropical Storm Nicholas delivered a one-two punch to the area. But perhaps we should all feel some concern regardless of whether we suffered from natural disasters.

If all politics is local, then change starts with individual voters at the ballot box. This means you and me.

Cracks in the Wall

Human stubbornness runs deep, and because the recognition of climate change is tied to American politics, logic, common sense, and scientific evidence all fail to impact the opinions of many Americans. If individuals don’t personally feel the pain, the tendency is to dismiss climate threats as background noise. But over the past several years, cracks have started to form in the GOP resistance to climate change.

The 2020 Republican platform failed to address climate change, but significant factions in the party are actively pressing to address climate change threats despite this denial. Younger members are more convinced the danger is real, and a growing number of Republicans regard global warming as a serious problem.

Climate change happens slowly, and thus we either fail to notice it, or the slow pace of change dampens the urgency for quick action. Humans often need clear markers to see the change. This need for visible change is why coastal communities are often the first to embrace the new reality of a changing world. They notice as their homes and communities flood more often. They live on the active margins of climate change.

Perhaps this is why the Florida GOP broke the Republican code of silence in 2020 and addressed “climate change” in a piece of State legislation. Florida has much to lose, and therefore its residents, already living at sea level, notice the changes and demand action from their elected officials — all politics is local.

What is Required for Change?

When local communities suffer, they look to their representatives for action. If your home is constantly underwater, or wildfire smoke drives you away, the threats become personal. If you live in the American Southwest, where twenty years of drought have led to water rationing, the changes and stresses on daily life become a political priority. The front line of climate change adaptation forms in local communities as their way of life is challenged by environmental stress.

The human propensity for procrastination supports society’s tendency for reactive decision making, where the status quo is a default position until a crisis forces change. When the political fallout from local climate change stress becomes widespread, then and only then will proactive government policy lead the way towards climate adaptation.

Adapting to climate change will not be a painless process, and individual sacrifices will be required. However, research and polls show that while 8 in 10 Americans believe Anthropocene activity has created significant climate change threats, only about 50 percent of those polled thought they would need to make personal sacrifices to resolve the problems. Sadly, we will all pay a price.

Climate change is getting personal, and calls for action are increasing, but in true form, many of us believe someone else will make the sacrifice to solve our climate dilemma. All politics is local, so make climate change adaptation a priority and vote for candidates who want to solve our problems, not hide from them.

Related Articles:

Climate Change Goes Local (by WM House; Medium)

Warmer Oceans Drive Tropical Storms (by WM House; Medium)

Evaluating Flood Risk is Not One of Our Strong Points (by WM House; ArcheanWeb)

Hot and dry in the Western USA, a Megadrought in progress (by WM House; ArcheanWeb)

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A fictional adventure about the origins of life — The Strings of Life


People around the world increasingly see climate change as a personal threat, new poll finds (by Brady Dennis and Adam Taylor; The Washington Post)

As the 2020 election heats up, climate change becomes a bigger priority (By Justine Calma; The Verge)

William House
William is an earth scientist and writer with an interest in providing the science "backstory" for breaking environmental, earth science, and climate change news.