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June 8, 2024

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“CHEMISTRY” is…Chemical: Deciphering the complicated science of spark

WRONG AS RAIN

Before I return to the ISS as promised for round two with Orbital, life on Earth has sufficiently distracted me into a different (if annoyingly recurring) topic—and I don’t mean Trump’s guilt x 34. It’s not the heat but the humidity that makes us humans die of heatstroke and feel increasingly precarious on this melting snowglobe we inhabit. And it’s not the late spring rain lately but the monsoon-level barrages that are making the Northeast feel like we are tilting toward tropical.

The other night, I barely slept as it felt as if my little stucco abode in sweet Sleepy Hollow, NY would just wash away in the nonstop deluge and smoothly flow downstreet, downstream along the Hudson into the deep dark seawaters surrounding Manhattan. What will become of us I wondered—me, in a micro way with my minor leaking garage (roof fixed, but the water still finds a way through on the floor level); and us, on the macro county/country/nation/Earthly scale. Admittedly our worries are scant here in my neck of the greater NYC metropolitan area—we don’t face masses of climate fatalities, emergencies and refugees the way every other place seems to from forest fires to mudslides, but still we feel the uneasy effects of human-induced climate change constantly now. Enough that citizens in this village have been meeting regularly to brainstorm a local climate effects game plan, and my work phone is full of flood damage voicemails after every severe rainfall, which is nearly every rainfall.

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From the National Center for Environmental Info branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has definitive rainfall measures from Jan-April to look at in the US so far:

The U.S. Climate Extremes Index (USCEI) for the year-to-date period was 44 percent above average, ranking in the upper third of the 115-year period of record. Extremes in warm maximum and minimum temperatures were the major contributors to this elevated CEI value. The USCEI is an index that tracks extremes (occurring in the upper or lower 10 percent of the record) in temperature, precipitation and drought across the contiguous United States.

On the regional scale, the Northeast, Upper Midwest and Ohio Valley each ranked much-above average with the Northeast experiencing the largest extent of extremes on record for this period. Each of these regions experienced elevated extremes in warm maximum temperatures, warm minimum temperatures and one-day precipitation. Extremes in wet PDSI were elevated across much of the Northeast, while extremes in dry PDSI affected around one fourth of the Upper Midwest. Below-average extremes were observed across the Northern Plains and Rockies, Northwest and West regions during this four-month period.

This chart shows us in the green all over—in this case not a good thing—with a handful of states, mostly in the Northeast, with many “much above average” rain levels so far this year (comparing from 1895-on) and most throughout the country at least “above average,” including NY.

I don’t think anyone can take any comfort in an “Extremes Index” rising and can’t take any bragging rights for what the meteorologists call the wettest year and spring so far on record. “Both this spring and 2024 so far are among the wettest on record for many in the Northeast,” says Weather Underground. Each rainstorm, though they tend to be short-lived, adds insult to injury. “This is because the additional rainfall comes on top of already saturated ground, meaning the rain is more likely to start pooling above the surface and running off soil that’s less likely to absorb it. Urban and poor drainage areas will be most prone to any localized flooding that occurs.”

I try to do my part for the butterfly propagation movement but I couldn’t make it through No Mow May without making a few passes at my Catskills grass. It’s so high in just a few weeks that it verges on meadow. (I am in fact converting most of it to meadow, but the remaining part of the lawn-lawn in all this rain quickly surpasses the abilities of my mower; and the meadow is already needing a whack from my scythe. And yes, scythe.)

CLIMATE (IN)ACTION

Since I’m a words and thoughts girl more than I excel in the art of lawncare, I’d like to contemplate how if the language and data aren’t working to scare people into caring about climate change, perhaps tilting the scales toward just enough personal observation and struggle could do the trick? If even the affluent Westchester County finance dudes in suits have problems with the sump pump keeping the basement clear during yet another spring downpour, then maybe this is where realizations and real change can begin? Or can they?

What’s it going to take? The term “climate crisis” hasn’t induced anything but paralysis, the way I once wrote in my piece on Danger + Opportunity when I was first starting here over a year ago:

In contemporary usage, crisis comes only with the negative connotation of disaster and doom. You would think “climate crisis” together might be very motivating because who wants the world to end, but bewildered scientists—and poor Al Gore—have learned through the decades of shouting into the deaf vortex that the effect of pairing these two words has been only numbing and paralyzing rather than activating. 

Crisis seems to induce too much pressure and earnestly backfires into mere complacency or this new term I just found, “eco-anxiety.” Well if the world is dying anyway, then who am I—with my gasoline-fueled, hamburger-clogged life and 1,000 inconsequential disposable habits—to fix it, so at least the grandkids will have Mars and maybe a creepily preserved President Elon on Mars. Ambivalence is the most dangerous emotion there is, as it leads to absolutely nothing. The biggest crisis of climate is the feeling of inevitability that comes from the word crisis itself. Hopelessness. Despair.

How about more visuals? Here’s the world in blues from OurWorldinData.org, and guess what, it turns out most people do care:

This is good news (I guess?) that way more of the world believes in climate change than some stubborn red staters might want you to think. But tell that to the Philippines (who ranks highest at 97%) and they’ll say because believing is seeing. Sadly, the more problems we face, the more we will foment “belief.”

The researchers at OurWorldinData discuss this dangerous “perception gap,” where we assume less people believe in climate change than really do. From a study of 60,000 participants in 63 countries, and why it matters:

People across the world, and the political spectrum, underestimate levels of support for climate action.

This “perception gap” matters. Governments will change policy if they think they have strong public backing. Companies need to know that consumers want to see low-carbon products and changes in business practices. We’re all more likely to make changes if we think others will do the same.

If governments, companies, innovators, and our neighbors know that most people are worried about the climate and want to see change, they’ll be more willing to drive it.

On the flip side, if we systematically underestimate widespread support, we’ll keep quiet for fear of “rocking the boat.”

This matters not only within each country but also in how we cooperate internationally. No country can solve climate change on its own. If we think that people in other countries don’t care and won’t act, we’re more likely to sit back as we consider our efforts hopeless.

Except for countries they didn’t measure, even the lowest percentages are 73% in agreement in belief of the grave threat of climate change (with the US at 77%!). Then there’s the next chart, admittedly slightly less bold blue but still decidedly blue, addressing the need in the face of that for decisive action to fix it. Because we can still fix it. The US declines to 68% on this, lower than the 77% but still the vast majority. So how do we make that leap from knowing we need to do something to actually doing it?

Another study they cite involves even more people across more countries, and with their chart in green in case you prefer the green theme:

Another recent paper published in Nature Climate Change found similarly high support for political change. Peter Andre et al. (2024) surveyed almost 130,000 individuals across 125 countries.

89% wanted to see more political action. 86% think people in their country “should try to fight global warming.” And 69% said they would be willing to contribute at least 1% of their income to tackle climate change.

In that study, the US is back up to 74%.

You can blame this perception gap—the falsity that we live in such balanced 50-50 polarization about global warming—on the habit of social media and mainstream media to present contrasts and negatives rather than amplify the news that most people actually agree we need to act fast. The debate isn’t should we do something, but what?

WHAT NOW?

Stop talking about the problem and start talking about the solution, please. It comes down to economics doesn’t it, but don’t blame every individual consumer and their tiny dollars and limited choices when this requires an honest conversation about policy and the bigger players. Rethinking the message. More from this article:

The new debate, then, is what we should do. That will require a different focus for communication.

The [Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development] OECD surveyed 40,000 people across 20 countries to understand their attitudes to climate policies. It found three key predictors of support: the perceived distributional impacts of policies (including whether the individual would be worse off); their perceived effectiveness in reducing emissions; and how progressive the policies were (support dropped if people thought policies would hit the poorest hardest).

The OECD had three treatment conditions. One group was shown a video about the impacts of climate change. A second group was shown a video about the impacts of specific climate policies. The third group was shown both videos. The survey measured their levels of support for specific policies before and after the videos were shown. The video showing the impacts of climate change was the least successful in increasing support. Informing people about the specifics of the policy performed much better. And the best result came from showing people both.

This makes sense. If someone is skeptical of the costs of renewable energy, the carbon footprint of an electric car compared to a petrol one, or whether heat pumps work, talking only about rising temperatures is not going to shift their position. To do that, we need to engage with their legitimate concerns about the effectiveness and possible negative impacts of these changes. We need to communicate what these changes mean—or don’t mean—for their individual lives, community, energy prices, or income. We need to explain the potential trade-offs and talk about the benefits.

This is crucial. A massive study of nearly 60,000 people across 23 countries on climate messaging found, again, that there was very strong support for political action. However, the support for specific policies was much more varied. Importantly, the framings of specific interventions mattered a lot. Policies built around “clean energy,” for example, got very strong support on both the left and the right. Negative framings such as “phasing out” or “ending” practices were much more polarizing.

The problem is that we often don’t get into specifics of solutions because we think we still have to convince people that climate change is a problem.

As researchers concerned about climate change, we still need to discuss its damaging impacts. But we need to shift much of the conversation towards solutions—what they are, how effective they are, what the benefits might be. That is the current roadblock to reducing emissions, not the recognition that we need to do so. The majority—in all countries—agree.

Observing is everything, and it starts now from your own porch. I end this flurry of charts with a recurring interlude from my youth:

In every meaty thunderstorm, we’d sit on the porch with Dad teaching us how to count between lightning flash and thunder clap to measure the distance. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three…four…five…—crack. Divide by five. Only one mile away and getting closer.

The time and distance are shrinking. The thunder is here.


Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop,  Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is sharing reg­u­larly with The Hudson Independent readership. You can  subscribe for free to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your in­box.

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