Making it Personal: The Key to Climate Change Action

by Brandon Palmen, UMN Law Student, MJLST Executive Editor

Climate change is the ultimate global governance challenge, right? It’s an intractable problem, demanding a masterfully coordinated international response and a delicate political solution, balancing entrenched economic interests against deeply-discounted, diffuse future harms that are still highly uncertain. But what if that approach to the problem were turned on its head? We often hear that the earth will likely warm 3-5 degrees centigrade (+/- 2 degrees), on average, over the next hundred years, and we may wonder whether that’s as painful as higher utility bills and the fear of losing business and jobs to free-riding overseas competitors. What if, instead, Americans asking “what’s in it for me?” could just go online and look up their home towns, the lakes where they vacation, the mountains where they ski, and fields where their crops are grown, and obtain predictions of how climate change is likely to impact the places they actually live and work?

A new climate change viewing tool from the U.S. Geological Survey is a first step toward changing that paradigm. The tool consolidates and averages temperature change predictions based on numerous climate change models and displays them on a map. The result is beautiful in its simplicity; like a weather map, it allows everyday information consumers to begin to understand how climate change will affect their lives on a daily basis, making what had been an abstract concept of “harm” more tangible and actionable. So far, the tool appears to use pre-calculated, regional values and static images (to support high-volume delivery over the internet, no doubt), and switching between models reveals fascinatingly wide predictive discrepancies. But it effectively communicates the central trend of climate change research, and suggests the possibility of developing a similar tool that could provide more granular data, either by incorporating the models and crunching numbers in real time, or by extrapolating missing values from neighboring data points. Google Earth also allows users to view climate change predictions geographically, but the accessibility of the USGS tool may give it greater impact with the general public.

There are still challenging bridges to be crossed — translation of what “N-degree” temperature changes will likely have on particular species, and “tagging,” “fencing,” or “painting” of specific tracts of land with those species — but it is plausible that within a few years, we will be able to obtain tailored predictions of climate change’s impact on the environments that actually matter to us — the ones in which we live. Of course those predictions will be imprecise or even wholly incorrect, but if they’re based on the best-available climate models, coupled with discoverable information about local geographic features, they’ll be no worse than many other prognostications that grip everyday experience, like stock market analysis and diet/nutrition advice. Maybe the problem with public climate change debate is that it’s too scientific, in the sense that scientists know the limitations of their knowledge and models, and are wary of “defrauding” the public by drawing inductive conclusions that aren’t directly confirmed by evidence. Or maybe there’s just no good way to integrate the best climate models with local environmental and economic knowledge … yet.

Well, so what? Isn’t tackling climate change still an intractable global political problem? Maybe not. The more that people understand about the impacts climate change will have on them personally, the more likely they are to personally take action to ameliorate climate change, even absent meaningful top-down climate change policy. And while global governance may be beyond the reach of most individuals, local and state programs are not so far removed from private participation. In her recent article, Localizing Climate Change Action, Myanna Dellinger examines several such “home-grown” programs, and concludes that they may be an important component of climate change mitigation. Minnesotans are probably most worried about climate change’s impact on snow storms, lake health, and crop yields, while Arizonans might worry more about drought and fragile desert ecosystems, and Floridians might worry about hurricanes and beach tourism. If all of these local groups are motivated by the same fundamental problem, their actions may be self-coordinating in effect, even if they are not coordinated by design.