While the Weather's Weird, Talk About Climate Change
President Obama isn’t talking about climate change. Although his campaign used the occasion to ask environmentalists to join up, the president signed an official Earth Day proclamation this year that omitted any mention of it. His campaign website neglects to mention the issue, either. (Update: Obama did mention the existence of climate change in an interview with Rolling Stone published Wednesday.) Dan Farber, a law professor at University of California-Berkeley, set out to compare the president’s proposed environment and energy policies to Mitt Romney’s. And while the president has ideas to share about alternative energy, Keystone XL, environmental policy, fossil fuels, and public lands, Farber found nary a mention of climate change or policies that might address it.
The president isn’t the only one who’s skittish about discussing climate change right now. This weekend, the last episode of Frozen Planet aired. A collaboration between the Discovery Channel and the BBC, the series featured crisp, panoramic shots of fantastic landscapes and curious animals. The last episode, “On Thin Ice,” was about climate change: It showed the peril that polar animals face. But the show did not include an explanation for why, exactly, the ice was melting beneath their feet. This omission wasn’t accidental. To delve into climate science, the series’ producer told The New York Times, “would have undermined the strength of an objective documentary” and scared away prospective viewers.
This is how talking about climate change is perceived—as an action so toxic it could hurt a sitting president’s chances of reelection or prevent potential viewers from soaking in footage of adorable penguins and polar bears. But right now might actually be one of the best times to talk to Americans about climate change, its impacts, and strategies to fight back.
People, it turns out, are not rational about their views on climate. Not at all. Their views change with the weather—literally. A recent survey by the Yale Project on Climate Communications found that Americans are linking the weird weather they’ve experienced this year to climate change, even as scientists caution that making that connection will require more research. One researcher who studies public opinion on climate change has found that while climate-denying campaigns have little influence on opinions about climate change, a bout of weird weather can make a skeptic more likely to believe. People are even more likely to say climate change is a problem if they’re seated in a warm room.
This winter broke high-temperature records across the country. It’s almost May, and this weekend a storm dumped sleet and snow and general nastiness across New York and Pennsylvania. All this weird weather is likely making Americans more receptive than usual to conversations about climate change. It’s too bad that fewer leaders than ever are willing to speak up and press for real action on this issue. If next winter gets chilly enough, this window of opportunity may close.