Jeff Masters Hurricane Blog

Thank you for 15 years as Yale Climate Connections editor » Yale Climate Connections

A lot can happen over the span of a decade and a half. And also not much, and certainly not enough.

That’s a sound-bite snapshot of the past 15 years for climate change and for this site since it first went live online. It’s been a great ride as founder and editor.

Thinking back to those halcyon days, much about climate change indeed has happened. Much of it, despite the loss of precious time in having not done nearly enough over those years to address the problem, for the better.

Better in the sense of broader and deeper public concern about and understanding, domestically and internationally, of the very real risks posed; about the nature of humans’ causing the warming; and about the real, albeit limited, “solutions” still available to us to help avoid the most serious consequences.

Think back: When we first launched, the term “global warming” was too often a late-night TV punch line for mocking Al Gore. Now, most of those same outlets are making authoritative documentaries and routinely addressing what they readily call the “climate crisis.”  Climate reporting staffs have been substantially expanded within many national newsrooms, print, broadcast, cable and online.

Better too in terms of the affordability of renewable energy alternatives relative to continued splurging on fossil fuel alternatives that yet today remain, by far, the dominant sources of energy for much of the planet’s now-eight-billion human inhabitants. And better also concerning the technological fixes available and under development and the growing acceptance of same. (The U.S. Department of Energy’s December 13 announcement of a potentially world-changing “second sun” fusion breakthrough is just the most recent example.)

Improvement in the overall “climate on the climate” derives in large part from hard-earned gains in public understanding, brought about by endless hours of tireless work and commitment by the global scientific community. And much of the credit for the progress stemming from their findings goes to federal support, notwithstanding its ebbs and flows, and to the charitable giving community and others who not only supported that work and, critically, spreading the word about it.

During a period of media revolution and rise of anti-science attitudes

Those earlier years brought to the fore endless fascination and experimentation with search energy optimization, Google analytics, hashtags, tweets, and widespread unknown and unseeable social media “friends.” Civil society at home and abroad – and unquestionably here in the home of the “free and the brave” – confronted all-out climate science contrarians and self-anointed “skeptics.” Amidst a still-evolving mass media revolution in which climate science “false balance” preceded the rise of “fake news” claims, those hell-bent against effective climate science-based policy efforts absconded with the term “skeptics,” abetted in many instances by their online megaphones.  For too long, it was fashionable, and journalistically essential, to use that term only in quotes, or with ample qualification. It was avoided in polite circles.

Peaks and valleys in progress and regress

With top print and broadcast news organizations succumbing to the ways of tweets, “going viral,” and the bottomless digging for “eyeballs” and “hits,” the stable of responsible media outlets – and in particular independent metropolitan daily newspapers – succumbed, reducing their editorial staff and quality and in many cases going full-scale belly-up. The anti-science ethic grew and extended well beyond climate science, and it’s now a part of the social fabric.

Through it all, “truth” has continued to emerge from the rabble, if just barely: Climate change is happening, it’s demonstrably human-caused over the past seven or more decades, its effects will be mostly and substantially negative, and the keys to addressing it are in our human hands and minds, just as it was caused by those same forces.

The progress indeed has been commendable, notwithstanding the inevitable peaks and valleys inherent in any real democracy. And the roots of that progress lie not only with progressively more effective public policies at all levels of government, but also with the advances brought about by growing sectors within the financial/banking and insurance communities; within key portions of the private sector overall; and, perhaps most of all, within the public writ large.

The language of ‘climate crisis’ and ‘skeptics’

One interesting measure of the scale of change since this site’s first post (at 12:23 p.m. eastern on October 1, 2007) is growing public acceptance of that term “climate crisis.” No qualifying or quotes around “crisis” necessarily needed. That acceptance is especially apparent among some respected media outlets, while some other respected blue-blood news media continue to resist … and understandably so … even as they boost internal climate reporting and analysis resources and increase climate column inches and airtime.

Furthermore, the once-growing chorus of irreconcilable climate science “deniers” has stilled, if only somewhat; the number voicing such flat-earth viewpoints over time has diminished, if only in volume and fervor. Sure, those voicing such perspectives persist, and there’s no guarantee they aren’t simply in pause mode. But the growing body of evidence-based scientific findings – for instance involving more and more frightening severe weather events, droughts, heat domes, and flooding – has largely squelched their unworthy criticisms.

‘Net zero’ vs. ‘BACT’

Another interesting awareness has emerged since this site first posted:  Just how unlike the challenge of confronting climate change and carbon dioxide emissions is from earlier pollution control efforts.

Take, for example the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, this nation’s principal national regulatory agency on such matters. The public at large no doubt perceives EPA’s mission as being to stop pollution … flat-out halt it.   In fact, the agency is actually responsible for legalizing pollution – up to, that is, scientifically derived legal regulatory limits.  With other pollution control efforts under that agency’s wide portfolio of responsibilities, the agency says how much of which pollutant(s) can be emitted, and how.

Not so with climate change and with CO2, as evidenced by the unforgiving absolutist terminology of “net zero,” however aspirational that objective may be. In this case, it’s not sufficient, at least over the longer term, to merely limit additional CO2 releases to the atmosphere:  They instead must be halted altogether, the atmospheric emissions eliminated and not merely leveled-off.

Much progress has occurred … so much more still needs to happen …

That’s an entirely different, and politically far more daunting, challenge than merely defining and institutionalizing concepts such as “best available control technology” or “new source performance standards” or “best management practices.” The implications doubtless have not yet settled-in as needed in the minds of the broader public … or of its policy makers.

More time is needed. Yet more time is precisely what is most unavailable in seriously addressing the growing atmospheric emissions and concentrations of climate pollutants from levels that existed 15 years ago. Let alone as they are projected to exist lacking a determined global effort to reverse the trend.

‘And miles to go’ before [we all] can feel confident

So, much has happened in the climate change and mass media arenas in the decade-and-one-half in which this writer and editor has overseen this site. And so much more is needed as the mantle is passed to younger successors.

I’ll be watching, albeit (and hopefully) with sand more often between the toes. And I’ll be wishing further successes and gains in confronting these extraordinary global challenges to our only planet’s only climate. And gains too in realizing the countless opportunities and benefits and the positive future those challenges may yet portend. As a colleague has noted, better to focus on the future we want to live in than on the one we want to avoid.

Robert Frost perhaps said it best … “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.” In this case, importantly, that “I” involves all of us, all eight billion.  

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