The Climate Corner

Meeting the challenge posed by climate change was a matter of broad bipartisan concern in our country just a decade ago, really a matter of practical management. No longer.

Our climate has become, instead, a polarizing “third rail” of environmental politics and policy. Given this unfortunate transformation in public discourse and opinion, and the real threats that climate change presents to our quality of life, it is important to ask: how can we talk about climate change in ways that will be productive and unifying, rather than polarizing?

How can we – together – talk about risks and opportunities in a rapidly changing world in ways that inspire public confidence instead of mistrust?

At the Nelson Institute, our answer has evolved over the years. Experience with our Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), in particular, has taught us several important lessons.

First, we’ve learned that the global problems we face, in the abstract, are not compelling for Wisconsin citizens with busy lives, working to keep their pantries stocked and their health care bills under control. For many, “global change” and threats to polar bear habitat are, of necessity, a low priority.

Of course, the food in people’s fridges comes from a climate-sensitive food system and their health is linked perilously to changing ecological patterns – extreme heat events, migrating diseases, and increasing drought that are emerging from the global warming that is clearly occurring. Even so, when the challenge is framed as a “changing global system,” it is understandable why many people are simply not as interested or engaged as the environmental and scientific communities wish.

We’ve also learned through our WICCI studies that there are any number of changes that are occurring that are of immediate, dramatic and compelling importance to people in Wisconsin.

As I travel around the state, sportsmen tell me they worry about the trout in their streams. Construction firms report concern about bid-days lost to heavy rainfall events. Parents worry about their kids’ heat exposure. Insurance firms worry about rising crop claims. Horse owners tell me they worry about the price of small-batch hay. And ice fishermen worry about…ice. All of these climate change impacts affect the myriad things that make up our lives and economies and have a real, if often intangible, value to people, no matter their political persuasion or whether they see themselves as “environmentalists.”

The bottom line is that we all care about the quality of life that a healthy Wisconsin environment provides and we want to protect and preserve that environment for our grandchildren.

Starting with the perspective of what people value, the facts of climate change become more compelling, and far more interesting. For trout fishermen, consider the stream warming we’ve already observed throughout the state, which puts fish habitat in peril. With a 25 percent projected increase in rainfall by midcentury, coming increasingly in events of 2” or more in 24 hours, builders have real reason to worry. Treasured winter sports are being truncated because the duration of ice cover on many Wisconsin lakes has decreased by more than two weeks over the last century, owing to warmer fall temperatures, later freeze dates, and earlier break-up dates. What we value is in a state of ongoing, fascinating and disturbing flux.

Having learned these lessons, the question becomes: what do you value that might be at risk due to climate change? How much are you willing to pay to protect those things? What do you value that is beyond a price?

When framed in this way, our discussions of climate should pivot dramatically away from the divisive misunderstandings of the past and focus, like a laser, on our shared concerns. How should we talk about environmental change? Start with what we value.

Of course, not everyone values the same things or values things in the same way. As a result, living with, adjusting to, and combating climate change is inherently political (though not in a merely partisan sense).

It means making tradeoffs between many things that may be important. Altering stream banks to preserve or encourage trout under conditions of warming may change other aquatic ecosystems. Capturing and concentrating agricultural effluents before they are carried to lakes in rainfall events may mean favoring responsible, large scale dairy production. Shutting down coal-fired power plants may require more nuclear power in Wisconsin’s portfolio, and certainly more natural gas derived from fracking.

Weighing choices means discussing and debating values. Such discussions are practical, positive and much needed. They are rooted in a concern for the things that make up our lives.

Our world is in a state of change, like it or not. To address these changes and marshal the public understanding and support that will enable an effective response, we need to start close to home – understanding what is happening to our lakes, parks, businesses and homes – and making a cool and reasoned appraisal of what we’re willing to lose and what we need to work together to preserve.

Denial of climate change is reckless. Doomsday predictions are irresponsible. Reasoned discussion and action is essential and the way to get there is to focus on what matters most to Wisconsinites.

Paul Robbins is leading a variety of initiatives in educational innovation and community engagement, including the establishment of a new professional Master’s degree in environmental conservation. He is an expert on human interactions with nature and the politics of natural resource management.