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Climate Change is Finally Real for the American People

By Rosana Francescato, MOSAIC

2012 seems set to go down in history as the year in which climate change became real for the United States. Over a period of six months, New York City flooded, the biggest drought in half a century settled into the Midwest, and wildfires burned 9.3 million acres in one of the worst fire seasons ever recorded.

By July last year, over 40,000 daily heat records had been broken in the U.S.

The question now is whether last year’s epic run of epic events will lead to new momentum for climate solutions. Will we finally get a shift in public opinion to match the shifting weather?

So far, surprisingly, the answer seems to be yes. Recent months have seen a long list of institutions and individuals—many rather unexpected, some powerful—speaking out in favor of action on climate change.

The climate movement has some strange new bedfellows. Here’s a roundup:

The American people

No longer able to deny what they see with their own eyes, a growing number of Americans are acknowledging that climate change is real. According to Gallup, 51 percent of Americans worried a great deal or a fair amount about global warming in 2011. By March 2012, a Gallup poll showed that number had increased to 55 percent, and this year, Gallup bumped that up to 58 percent. This is in line with the trend seen in a Yale poll released in October 2012, which found that 74 percent of Americans believe “global warming is affecting weather in the United States,” up 5 points from their survey six months earlier.

Other findings align with these, though the numbers differ. According to a recent study conducted by Duke University, 50 percent of Americans are now “convinced the climate is changing" and another 34 percent believe it "is probably changing." That study found that Americans are at their highest level of belief in climate change and humans’ contribution to it since 2007.

Perhaps this trend will bolster new science teaching guidelines expected to be implemented in up to 40 states, which include extensive lessons on human-caused climate change.

The changes to the science curriculum are not without controversy, and the Duke study saw some division on climate change along party lines. However, another recent Yale survey revealed that even a majority of Republican and Republican-leaning voters now believe in climate change. Notable among those is former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like many other Americans, he not only believes the majority of scientists on this issue, but also what he’s seeing himself. And what he’s seeing is a threat to California and its agriculture, which helps feed the rest of the country and provides over 1.5 million jobs in that state.

The security establishment

Another Republican, former Secretary of State George Shultz, is an unlikely climate activist who considers the issue urgent enough to warrant a recent visit to Capitol Hill after a 20-year absence. His purpose? To push Congress to support alternative energy sources.

And Shultz is not alone. Even before 2012, military leaders were expressing concern about climate change. In February 2010, the Pentagon’s primary planning document identified climate change and energy as “two key issues that will play a significant role in shaping the future security environment” and went on to note that “climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked.” In April of the same year, 33 retired generals and admirals wrote a letter to senate leaders warning that “Climate change is threatening America’s security” and urging action.

Although the military is currently setting lofty goals for transitioning to renewable energy, they have sometimes been reluctant to attribute those actions to concern about climate change. Still, while they may have other reasons for adopting renewables, many in the military acknowledge that climate change is not only real but also a serious issue.

The Navy considers climate change a national security challenge and has devoted a task force to dealing with it. Rear Admiral David Titley told a Mother Jones reporter that “climate change is not only coming, but it's here"—and four-star Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, chief of the U.S. Pacific region, claims that climate change, more than any other scenario we face, will “cripple the security environment.”

Recently, more than three dozen national security officials, members of Congress, and military leaders joined George Shultz in signing a bipartisan letter urging Congress to take action on climate change. This came on the heels of a December report from the National Intelligence Council, which coordinates all U.S. intelligence agencies, identifying climate change as one of four “megatrends” that will shape the world over the next two decades.

The financial world

Climate change is more than a security issue. Institutions and investors alike are realizing it will hit them where it really hurts: their pocketbooks. Given that Superstorm Sandy alone is estimated to have set us back over $70 billion, they have cause for concern.

Last year, a major coal company not only admitted climate change is real but also invested significant money into hedging against its effects—a sure sign that financial interests are in jeopardy. That company even acknowledged its own role in causing climate change, as well as the likelihood that the market for coal will soon shrink.

More recently, global investment bank HSBC joined the ranks of climate believers. In fact, HSBC paints a rather gloomy picture of the situation, comparing climate change to a “chronic disease, where the problem accumulates over time,” and predicting a “Peak Planet” scenario in which we use up our global carbon budget for the first half of the century before 2030.

They’re not the only financial institution getting on the climate change bandwagon. The World Bank connects climate change with increased risk of poverty in developing countries; its president, Jim Yong Kim, has warned that we can’t wait to take action. IMF chief Christine Lagarde, former conservative finance minister of France, has echoed this call to action.

Investors are also making their voices heard. A record number of 722 investors worth $87 trillion signed up this year for the Carbon Disclosure Project, a platform for companies to report their carbon emissions and the actions they’ll take to mitigate them. And the London Stock Exchange now requires that all companies listed there submit annual sustainability reports.

A good climate for action

All this concern about climate change indicates that the climate is, in fact, changing—that is, the climate for action. And it could be an indication that real change is on the way. Initiatives in the military and financial worlds will likely set the tone for other areas and hasten progress on a number of fronts.

A good example is the Navy, which is seeing climate change as an opportunity to “turn vulnerability into capability." Their search for the best biofuels will likely drive down prices and make it less necessary to protect oil supplies. And, as they like to point out, where the Navy leads, others will follow.

The same can be said of financial institutions. As more investors demand that companies mitigate carbon emissions, the financial pressures will force businesses to take action.

While the past year’s extreme weather events may have done a lot to change some minds, belief in climate change has been progressing for years. Now we’re at the point where some of our most sober institutions are on board to deal with it, and they’ll be backed by increasing public support. With all these sectors of society working on the problem, we have a much better chance of solving it.

MOSAIC contributed this post.

[image credit: Bert Kaufman: Flickr cc]

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