A new initiative from White House will open up data related to extreme weather events to the public, allowing anyone who wishes to parse data related to climate change. The move came the same day as two bits of news illustrating why the initiative will make no headway in persuading people to address climate change.
Called the Climate Data Initiative, the new data tools are meant, in the words of The Christian Science Monitor, to "ease access to federal data on climate issues including rises in sea level, storm surges, extreme heat, and drought." The goal? "Americans will use the data to create better public and private preparedness plans."
Fair enough. The featured tool right now is data related to sea level rise — one of the most obvious and most obviously dangerous aspects of climate change. (As polar ice melts and temperatures rise, the volume of the ocean has consistently grown, causing sea levels to consistently rise 3 mm a year.) For example, the map below shows a stretch of Staten Island; the yellow line indicates how far inland flood waters from Hurricane Sandy extended.
If you live on Staten Island, or in one of the other areas for which similar data is available, you can see how rising sea levels put your home at risk.
Which is the first point of irony. Last week, the Senate passed a bill that would reverse planned rate increases for flood insurance. President Obama has said he'll sign it. In the wake of Sandy, it became obvious that the premiums the Federal Emergency Management Agency was charging homeowners for coverage were far too low for the damage that was incurred. That was in part because FEMA's flood maps hadn't been updated to account for those rising seas. So FEMA re-did the maps, prompting increases in flood insurance rates.
No one wants to pay higher insurance rates. And since FEMA, unlike, say, Nationwide, is subject to the whims of politicians, politicians successfully lobbied to kill the rate increases. In other words, politicians are specifically deciding to put the government's ability to deal with the future costs of climate change at risk for short-term political gain. And Obama, the guy releasing the maps of the damage Sandy did, is going to sign the bill into law.
Like everything else in politics, it's more complicated than it sounds — but only slightly. There simply isn't the political will to take action on climate change, even something as immediate and obvious as ensuring that people are paying insurance premiums linked to the likelihood that the government will need to cover flood damage. The blame for that lies with voters.
About that. Gallup released a new survey on Wednesday that shows what could have been predicted a year ago: public attitudes on climate change are stuck. Fifty-seven percent of Americans accept the science linking climate change to human activity. Same as last year. Same as it has been for years, really.
Why? How? In part, because people who claim they are the most knowledgeable about climate change are, in Gallup's words, "the least likely to blame humans."
[I]n recent years, those with the highest level of knowledge -- those saying they understand the global warming issue very well -- are the least likely to believe global warming is the result of pollution from human activities. This is somewhat of a change from 2001 to 2007, when the most informed Americans were generally among the most likely of all knowledge groups to consider pollution the cause.
This isn't a new revelation, but it's still stunning. Self-assessments of climate knowledge obviously bear little relation to actual understanding of the issues. It's science-y. Earlier this week a group of scientists unveiled a new program aimed at swaying people to the need to take urgent action on the issue. The plan, the Times notes, "is a recognition among scientists that they bear some responsibility for the confusion — that their well-meaning attempts to convey all the nuances and uncertainties of a complex field have obscured the core message about risks."
This has been the problem for months. For years. Obama's plan to offer more data to a public that sometimes willfully, though usually accidentally, misinterprets what it is hearing is categorically not going to move that stubborn needle off of 57 percent. Nor is it going to convince many politicians whose phones are jammed with people mad about a bill from FEMA to address the problem.
I went to the area of Staten Island that's in the map at the top of this page the weekend after the storm hit. I spent a day cleaning out the bottom floor of the house of an elderly couple, throwing away box after box after box of things that they'd been saving to give to kids or for memories or to sell online. My wife took the pictures below.
There were several deaths in houses a few blocks from where we were working. That's the sort of thing that can change your mind about the need to address climate change, driving down a street and seeing houses held up only by the muddy shells of their first floors. Personal experience with climate change will become increasingly common, some day. Until then, I guess we just stick with the numbers thing.