Scientists predict that Massachusetts could have the climate of the Carolinas by late this century if global warming continues unabated. With temperatures several degrees above average, this winter has brought a taste of what may be to come. And some wonder if that’s really such a bad thing. In the first installment of our four-part series, Cape Change: A Local Perspective on Global Warming, we explore the disparity between the scientific consensus and public opinion on climate change.
Daffodils blooming, kite surfers out on the water, and garden-fresh broccoli at the farmer’s market. It all sounds more like May than February, and it’s gotten a lot of people wondering if this winter is global warming in action.
“What we’ve had this winter is weather, it’s not climate,” says Hector Galbraith, director of Climate Change Initiatives at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. “But what we’ve seen this winter is maybe something like the sort of winter climate we can expect in 20 or 30 years, with less snowfall, milder temperatures, and some people might like that.”
Galbraith says he enjoys the warm weather as much as anyone. And he openly admits that climate change will benefit some people, at last in the short term. But it won’t be all roses – or early daffodils.
“People think of the climate change predictions as being slowly increasing temperature, everybody gets used to it, and adapts to it, and it seems okay,” says Galbraith. “But the major predictions from the climate models are to expect a greater frequency and intensity and duration of extreme events – floods, droughts, so on and so forth.”
Many scientists think we’re already seeing an uptick in extreme weather related to climate change. 2011 was the most extreme year on record. Natural disasters cost over fifty five billion dollars and claimed more than 600 lives in the U.S. alone.
The northeast is particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures and increasingly wild weather because so much of the economy is based on things like fishing, farming, and tourism. But the impacts could go beyond economics.
“If you can’t go for a walk in the woods without worrying the whole time about Lyme disease,” speculates Galbraith. “If you can’t go cross-country skiing because there is no cross-country skiing or there may only be for one month every winter, how is that going to affect people’s sense of place, or sense of well-being in our natural landscape? I don’t think people are going to relish that. I think it’s going to be a net loss.”
Massachusetts residents appear not to share Galbraith’s worries. A survey conducted last year by MassINC Polling Group found that the majority of people do think climate change is happening and at least partly human-caused. But they tend to view it as a problem affecting distant places and future generations, not a direct personal threat. Ben Forman, research director at MassINC, says he sees multiple reasons why scientists and the public view climate change so differently.
“I think Massachusetts residents are very educated,” says Forman. “So they’re very likely to know about climate science. But still, how you interpret that has a lot to do with what your values are.”
What Forman describes is known as cultural cognition, and it’s currently one of the leading explanations for why many people ignore or deny settled science on a range of issues, from vaccines to climate change. The theory is that if the implications of a scientific finding conflict with our inner sense of what’s right and fair, we tend to dismiss it.
“Often the talk about how we adapt to climate change is by efforts and sacrifices that we make jointly,” explains Forman. “So I think that may turn some people off and as a result they may choose to interpret the warnings they hear from scientists about the costs of inaction as not being as serious as maybe the scientific community thinks.”
But that may not be the whole story.
“Beyond the values explanation there’s probably one alternative interpretation,” says Forman. Leading thinkers don’t necessarily agree on the best way to address climate change. That leaves the public with a morass of differing, often conflicting, ideas to sort through. “In that sense,” he says, ”people may think the answer isn’t clear yet and so it must not be that immediate of a problem.”
But Galbraith says it would be a mistake to confuse a lack of government action on climate change with the absence of a problem itself.
“I’m here to tell you climate change is happening,” he says. “Our mitigation record has not been enviable. We’ve seen the collapse of many mitigation negotiations in the past. Climate change is happening. It will continue to happen.”
Galbraith says it’s time to face up to that and start preparing for the inevitable changes to come.
Tomorrow, we’ll turn our attention to the impacts of climate change on New England’s fisheries, particularly lobsters south of Cape cod.