From the United Nations’ international studies1 and accords2 to strategic planning efforts by the U.S. Department of Defense3, impacts of a rapidly changing global climate are being recognized and addressed around the world. Scientific data shows not only intensifying severe weather events and changing weather patterns but also accelerating atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, dying coral reefs, rising seas and vanishing glaciers. The pace of change continues to sound alarm bells in the scientific community and with the common citizen, businesses and governments as well.
However, here in the United States (which has by far the largest per capita carbon emissions of any major economy4), the debate continues not only around potential solutions but the causes themselves.
Some important questions continue to arise—why is the conversation around the planet’s changing climate still so polarizing? Why are opinions divided? In fact, why is it a matter of opinion at all?
What to trust
Surveys of Americans reveal not only a variety of viewpoints but uncertainty and a perception of mixed messages with regards to causes and effects of global warming. Setting aside the question of whether climate change is actually happening (as 97 percent of climate scientists5 and a solid majority of Americans agree6 that it is), questions and deep divisions remain as to the causes, seriousness, timing of its effects and possible solutions.
Individuals approach the climate debate from many perspectives, with viewpoints influenced by politics, the media, special interest groups, science and faith. Personal experience also plays a role, as opinions tend to shift, for example, when people see their own homes or towns flooded repeatedly. As a result, two rational, intelligent people looking at the same data may respond very differently.
Some see potential fixes in the political realm and policies such as carbon tax structures, which were originally proposed by Republicans in the 1980s, and the recently proposed Green New Deal.7 At the same time, others see “green” regulations as stifling business innovation and economic growth. Others—frustrated by an onerous, incremental political process—see the need for more drastic direct action. Some trust market forces and hope consumers will influence companies to adopt policies and practices that can fundamentally alter the way we build, manufacture, transport and consume.
In short, the topic of “climate change” invites a confluence of incredibly complex issues and ideas. As if Earth’s climate and other natural systems aren’t complex enough, add in human nature, culture, faith, politics and economics, and it’s no surprise that conflict remains.
Changing the Conversation
A person’s willingness to accept and interpret verifiable data may impact how open he or she is to participating in the conversation. American environmentalist Paul Hawken, author of “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming” (2016), recommends leaving “battle words” out of our language in reference to the climate. Hawken suggests that people stop talking about the climate as an enemy we are fighting, because climate changes happen; they are a proven function of biology. Instead, he suggests acknowledging our impact on those changes and taking up our responsibility to address them. “The goal,” he says, “is to come into alignment with the impact we are having on climate by addressing the human causes of global warming and bringing carbon back home.”
Hawken also recommends changing our framing of the issue. Climate change then becomes something that is not happening to us but for us, so that together we can be more creative and resourceful, and together we can rediscover balance with the natural world. This positive rather than confrontational approach may help alleviate the stubborn socio-political divisions that often characterize this debate.
Where Southface stands
At Southface Institute, we have carefully weighed the evidence and varying viewpoints and have a clear opinion: “From my standpoint, there is not any legitimate science that denies climate change,” Southface Board Chair and Executive Director of the Ray C. Anderson Foundation John A. Lanier says. He cites his two go-to sources for the scientific basis of global warming as The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
Southface believes that most scientists faithfully collect and analyze climate data with the intent of drawing conclusions based on verifiable and repeatable data sets and facts, not biases or preconceived ideas. Granted, humans are naturally biased—we can’t help it sometimes—which is why peer review is such an essential part of the scientific process.
The larger sample of replicable climate data over several decades makes it clear that Earth is warming and the climate is changing. What’s more, it is all occurring at a faster pace than ever in the planet’s history.8 The data points to human activity—particularly the burning of fossil fuels and other activities that increase greenhouse gas emissions—as a primary, and thus reversible, cause of this rapid change.
There’s also certainty in what we can do to help, says Lanier: “Using less energy and more renewable types of energy has a real, direct connection to the climate. Here at Southface, we extend an invitation for you to be part of the solution.”
Coming together for change
For many of those involved in mitigating the effects of climate change, the goal is to not only roll back the effects of global warming but also to create widespread sustainable and regenerative systems that have never been in place before—improving our future’s outlook on a number of levels.
For Southface President Andrea Pinabell, the effort to address climate change complements what the Southface mission has been since its founding in 1978: “Within our rapidly urbanizing communities and changing climate, we’ve always worked within a rigorous scientific and data-driven framework that seeks to reduce resource consumption while increasing equitable access to natural resources, thus addressing the effects of climate change,” she says.
“Every one of our programs is aligned with the goal of helping to create a regenerative economy—one that gives back more than it uses in social, environmental and financial capital,” Pinabell explains. “The impacts of climate change exacerbate all the conditions we’ve been trying to solve for over 40 years.”
To this end, as an organization working at the intersection of the built environment, Southface promotes technologies that improve building design and performance; trains building professionals in practices that lower carbon footprints and improve human health and comfort; advocates for meaningful public policy change at all levels of government; and works with community leaders to implement programs with a direct positive impact on the environment, the community and individual lives.
Says Pinabell, “It’s a big basket of solutions because that’s what it will take to ensure future human prosperity on this planet. In a sense, human ingenuity and the will to not only survive but also prosper have contributed to climate change. Fortunately, these are also the characteristics that can save us.”
Fourth National Climate Assessment