It was exceptionally warm in New York City this past weekend, well above 60 degrees Fahrenheit both Saturday and Sunday. According to weather.gov, the average temperature in Central Park during January has been between 25 and 41 degrees Fahrenheit every year since 2000. This was obviously an extraordinary weekend in New York City.
I cannot say with certainty that the temperature in New York City this weekend was a symptom of the climate crisis. It is going to be back down in the 40’s this week and I am hesitant to argue that any couple of days represents a symptom of a trend when it could correctly or incorrectly just be disregarded as an outlier. Nonetheless, a weekend like this does bring people’s attention to the issue, and I want to briefly touch upon the nature of that attention that is being brought.
Most people do not want to think about the climate crisis for the same reason that they do not want to think about any crisis — it is not pleasant to think about. Additionally, most people do not think that they have to think about the climate crisis because their perception is that its impacts are still a long ways away. This false perception is not helped by days like this past weekend in New York City. If the impact of climate change is simply a nice weekend in the winter followed by a prompt return to relatively normal winter weather, it does not feel like anything very bad is happening very quickly. We then have this unfortunate dynamic where the events that are triggering attention to the issue are not really representative of the issue itself and so the severity of the issue is discounted because the thing that is bringing it the attention is not at all comparable in its magnitude.
In the last 115 years, Arctic temperatures have increased 7 degrees Fahrenheit versus global temperatures which have increased only 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 140 years. Even in the Arctic, that change in temperature over the course of a lifetime can hardly be felt as it changes gradually year over year. It is important to recognize that the issue with climate change is not that the living temperature itself will become fatal in the near future. Rather, the issue is that these seemingly small but still accelerating rises in temperature will have catastrophic effects on humanity and overall life on earth. One of the more easily foreseeable examples will be the displacement of massive populations from coastal areas due to rising sea levels from the melting of Arctic ice.
There are a number of other reasons why the climate crisis is not getting the attention it deserves, including but not limited to the extreme complexity of the issue, its possible impacts (both direct and indirect), and the timeline on which those impacts will occur, as well as the unprecedented level of competition for people’s attention that is driving humanity’s inability to focus on important things.
I will end for now with something that may help get some people’s attention. Below is a quote from a post from Albert Wenger, whose blog finally drew my attention to the climate crisis and whose free book (which I coincidentally recommended in yesterday’s post) drew my attention to the issue of the scarcity of attention itself.
“Imagine the following scene: alien spaceships in orbit around earth, dropping nuclear bombs into our atmosphere at the rate of 1 bomb per second with the goal of overheating earth and destroying all life on it.“
Today I read this article (and the study which it references) which calculates that the oceans are actually heating up at a rate of 5 Hiroshima bombs per second. The scene that Albert asked us to imagine is dangerously real. As he points out later in his post, if aliens were the cause, we would join together internationally to combat this obvious threat to the earth. Instead, humans are the cause, and only some of the world is very slowly beginning to work together to combat it. I have long said that the best thing for world peace would be for everyone to have a common enemy. This could be it.