Will Humans Survive Climate Change?

Arguments about global warming heat up most when temps dip down below zero: “If the planet is warming up, why is it so dang cold?”

Thankfully, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe dives into this argument—and the intersection of science, politics and religion—every other week on the PBS Digital Studios series “Global Weirding.”

The online-only universe of PBS, PBS Digital Studios works with creators from across the web to offer a range of short-form videos for curious thinkers. “Global Weirding” is produced by KTTZ Texas Tech Public Media and launched in 2016 with Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech, at the helm.

Hayhoe recently offered Rewire’s readers some ideas to easily cut down their carbon footprints, so we were especially excited to sit down with her again for a Facebook Live Q&A. You can watch the entire conversation in the video above but we’ve pulled out four big ideas to share here:

Rewire: If I don’t care about the Arctic and it doesn’t really relate to me, why do I need to care about climate change?

Katharine Hayhoe: If we are shooting a movie or writing a book or doing a play about climate change and we say to somebody, “Well, what picture should we put on the poster or the cover?” nine out of 10 people are going to say a picture of a polar bear sitting on a melting iceberg, right?

And there’s no question that the polar bear is the canary in the mine so to speak when it comes to a changing climate. It is endangered because the area where it lives on the sea ice where it feeds, that’s where it gets all it’s food, it is melting.

So yes, the polar bear’s in danger, but the reason why we, each of us, cares about a changing climate is because after the polar bear, we’re next.

We care about climate change because it’s taking the risks that we already face in the places where we live and it’s amping them up, it’s exacerbating them.

So, do you live in a place where they have wildfires? Our wildfires are getting stronger and burning more area today than they used to 50 or 100 years ago. Do you live in an area that’s at risk from coastal flooding and hurricanes? We’re not seeing any more frequent hurricanes but we are seeing more rainfall associated with hurricanes, more coastal flooding, possibly even stronger hurricanes as they get their energy from warm ocean water. Droughts, heavy rain events, even some crazy snow storms. This is part of normal life but climate change is loading the dice against us in the places where we live.

Rewire: If we really are experiencing rising global temperatures, how come we’re still having such frigid weather?

KH: Climate change is a change in the average conditions that we normally see in the place where we live and global warming is just one symptom. It’s the average warming of the entire planet.

So the average warming of the planet, the planet warms and the planet warms, but you have all these variations and especially at the local scale. You know, our weather goes up and down and up and down, but increasingly in many places, in many ways, we’re seeing that regular kind of up and down pattern get stretched out as the planet warms since there’s more energy in the atmosphere. So between November and April, probably, the number one question I get is,… it’s freezing outside, where’s global warming now?

And the answer is, number one, something called winter and it is cold in winter and in many places in North America, our winters have been warming faster than any other season which means that when we get winter weather that used to be the normal average 30 to 40 years ago, we’re like, “Oh my gosh, it’s so cold. I can’t believe it.” So that’s number one, we’re not used to what winter used to be like.

But number two is, … because the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world, we’re getting these crazy wiggles in the jet stream and this is really at the cutting edge of research but there is some indications that those crazy wiggles could be bringing some colder weather to North America in the winter, just because it’s bringing all that Arctic air all the way down south. Now, if you’re up in the Arctic, you’d be like, oh well, that’s not cold, I’ll show you cold. But, man, if you live down in Texas or Florida, it definitely feels cold.

Rewire: Can the animals in the Arctic adapt or evolve to fit their changing climate?

KH: In general, some animals will be able to adapt, especially the generalists. And by generalists I mean, opossums, raccoons, deer, cockroaches, all of the animals that have no problem living almost anywhere you can imagine. They are going to adapt, because they can survive and thrive in a range of different conditions.

The animals that are in trouble are the animals that require a very specific set of conditions in order to thrive. The polar bear is a classic example because they require sea ice in order to hunt. And if there’s no ice, they can’t hunt.

There’s also other animals that are like the little pika. If you go to the Rocky Mountains and you’re hiking, there’s this little chipmunk that squeaks at you. Well, they live just between the snow line and the tree line, and, as that’s been moving higher and higher, their populations have been shifting further up the mountains. But the problem is, the mountains are finite. When you get to the top, there’s nowhere left to go.

There’s also many other species, from butterflies to fish to anything else that they need a certain specific set of conditions. And although animals in the ocean can move a lot more easily than animals on land, we do expect to see a large number of extinctions if we continue on our current pathway, as well as some hybridization.

A couple of years ago they recorded the first incidence of a polar bear and a grizzly bear actually breeding, and producing, I think they call it a pizzly, which is a terrible name.

So we do expect to see change, and the bottom line is, is the earth going to survive? Yes. Are animals going to survive? Many of them, yes. Is human civilization going to survive? That’s the question I am not sure about.

Rewire: What can an ordinary person do to stop climate change?

KH: The first most important thing you can do might surprise you. It’s to talk about it. Because they’ve done surveys and they’ve found that across the United States… about 75 percent of the people, three-quarters of the people, don’t even hear somebody else talk about climate change more than a couple times a year, let alone talk about it themselves. So why would we think it matter to us, in the places where we live, and why would we think we can fix it, if nobody ever talks about it?

So the first thing to do is talk about it. Have a conversation. Now, don’t get a giant scientific report and start whacking somebody over the head with it. Don’t do that. Start talking about how it matters to us in the places where we live. And if you don’t know, just look for the U.S. National Climate Assessment. It has a section for each part of the U.S. It tells you in detail exactly what’s happening in the places where you live. And we have lots of “Global Weirding” videos on it, too.

Then talk solutions. I have lots of cool solutions I post on Facebook. You can find them in the news every single day, if you look for them.

Number two, join an organization that will help you amplify your voice. What type of organization? Whatever it is that you have in common. There’s organizations for moms, like Moms Clean Air Force. There’s organizations for skiers and snowboarders, like Protect Our Winters. There’s organizations for evangelicals, like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. There’s organizations for libertarians, like the Niskanen (Center), or for free-market economists, like the (Energy & Enterprise Initiative). Citizens’ Climate Lobby is one of my favorite organizations because anybody from anywhere across the political spectrum can join and talk to elected officials from any part of the political spectrum about how there are very sensible bipartisan solutions to climate change.

Number three is,… step on the carbon scales and see what you can do about reducing your own footprint, because not only will you be contributing your part, but you can talk about it to other people.

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