The sun came out Thursday.
Ordinarily that would not be alarming news in South Carolina in mid-August. This year, however, it’s reason for joyous celebration. Let’s have a solar festival!
The weather this month and for much of the summer has been excessively gloomy. We have awakened to gray skies every day for weeks at a time. Rain falls constantly. Fall-like temperatures send us scampering for a sweatshirt.
It’s summer! We’re supposed to be sweltering, holed up in our air-conditioned cocoons while our lawns and gardens turn to parchment.
Do we really need any more proof that something wacky is going on with the weather?
Apparently we do. Despite the abnormalities in the weather (while we get soaked, much of the drought-stricken American West is on fire), many of us still are unwilling to accept the fact that human behavior is affecting the climate.
Another international team of scientists, this time sponsored by the United Nations, hopes to convince the skeptical with a climate report issued last week, which says the team is “90 percent to 100 percent certain” that human activity is the primary influence on planetary warming.
“It is extremely likely that human influence on climate caused more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010,” the report states. “There is high confidence that this has warmed the ocean, melted snow and ice, raised global mean sea level and changed some climate extremes in the second half of the 20th century.”
For scientists, “high confidence” means no real doubt remains. And, by the way, if we do nothing about this, we’re toast.
A report such as this – and hundreds of others by respected scientists who reach much the same conclusion – might convince most people that climate change is a real and significant threat to our survival. But another line of research suggests that, for some at least, their brains are hard-wired to deny that threat.
As reported recently in Time magazine, surveys show that 69 percent of those surveyed believe the earth is warming. While 69 percent is a sizable majority, only 1 in 4 Americans see global warming as a major threat.
And what about the 31 percent who don’t accept the reality of global warming? In light of the barrage of evidence supporting climate change, that’s a lot of deniers.
The problem, according to researchers, could be a series of mental barriers that prevent the disbelievers from confronting the threat. For example, climate change has evolved slowly enough for our minds to simply assume that it is the new normal, so we are not alarmed.
In that sense, we are like the frogs in slowly boiling water who can’t decide whether to jump out of the pot. When we eventually conclude the water is too hot, it’s too late.
Another barrier, according to one study, is the sense of powerlessness we can feel in the face of an overwhelming threat such as climate change. We think, well, I’m just one person, what can I do about it? So we do nothing.
Another theory from another study finds that some people simply find climate change too disturbing to talk about. It’s easier to ignore the topic altogether.
But this attitude seems somewhat odd in relation to common reactions to other perceived threats. Fear of sharks keeps many people out of the ocean, despite the slim odds of being attacked.
Every few years, some people give away their possessions and quit their jobs because some preacher tells them the end of the world is coming next week. If you tell people there’s a one-in-250-million chance a passing asteroid will destroy the planet, some will begin updating their wills.
(That’s also why people buy lottery tickets.)
Why are those remote threats easier to accept than the fact that the oceans are likely to rise three feet by the end of the century, as the UN report concluded? Maybe it’s because the end of the world as we know it resulting from climate change is too far in the future.
But we have to consider not only the demise of the planet, but also what we will have to endure in the mean time if we do nothing to reverse climate change. Tornadoes and hurricanes will be more powerful and more frequent; Antarctica will melt; coastal cities will be submerged; droughts, blizzards and other severe weather will be routine; animals, insects and plants will go extinct; clean air and water will become luxuries.
That’s bad, worse maybe than destruction by an asteroid, which at least would be quick. What more do we really need to know before we take this threat seriously?
One would think that one more summer like this one would be enough to motivate most South Carolinians.
James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at email@example.com.