With climate change, feeling is more powerful than knowing

Executive Editor
Graphic of a woman's brain from the side
Illustration by Samson Awosan.

With record-breaking heat waves saturating headlines this summer, one might grow tired of such repetitive news about extreme weather. Unless — or more likely, until — it happens to you.

It’s an adage as old as time: You never know how it feels until it happens to you. It’s a phenomenon we humans experience with so many things: gun violence, health scares, grief and more.

As extreme weather exacerbated by global warming becomes more common, we are increasingly seeing this adage in action in community after community.

“Climate change can feel like something that’s a distant concern. Something that will happen to other people at another time,” said Laura Carter Robinson, a clinical psychologist who’s on the executive committee of the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America. “When it does happen, it becomes salient. It’s relevant to you because it’s happening right here, right now, and it’s a shock to the system.”

With climate change’s omnipresence across the world, we all face a high risk that we will, eventually, directly experience its impacts.

Wildfires, exacerbated by hot weather and drought, offer a striking illustration.

“It might be a story to you, but it’s a nightmare to me,” said Phil Bailey, a resident of Lahaina, Hawaii, who narrowly escaped the wildfire that wiped out his town this summer, according to The Washington Post reporting at the time.

“Until you live through it, you have no idea,” said Kevin Starring, a fire chief in Adams County, Washington, after a fire nearly destroyed a small town in the eastern part of the state last summer, according to The Spokesman Review reporting at the time.

“Those east coasters shocked over the wildfire smoke choking their cities should join the club. Us west coasters have been dealing with this for years,” said me (to myself), earlier this summer when Canadian wildfire smoke smothered Eastern Seaboard cities.

I quickly realized I was being unfairly judgmental. I must give space for people to directly experience for the first time something that I have personally experienced many times. I can’t judge people for not having directly experienced wildfire smoke before and thus not having the understanding that comes when you do.

Although I feel I do empathize more, I can’t really know what Starring or Bailey went through unless I directly experience my home going up in flames. I hope I never do, but I know enough about the risks of wildfires where my family and I live across Washington State to realize the risk is present and growing.

Indeed, feeling might be the new believing. Directly experiencing the impacts of global warming or vicariously experiencing it through others are among the top reasons people change their mind about climate change, according to 2018 peer-reviewed research in the journal Climate Change.

“As climate change impacts worsen, and as people, the media and leaders talk about them more, more people will understand that climate change is happening, human-caused and a very serious threat,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, founder and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, who co-authored the report.

Leiserowitz’s prediction comes as the politics of climate change remain polarizing, which could counteract any change in position people may have when experiencing extreme weather.

Between 50% and 63% of Americans say climate change contributed to certain extreme weather events, including extremely hot days, droughts and wildfires, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll published in August. But those averages mask wide partisan divides. Less than 40% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents thought climate change was a major factor, compared to between nearly 70% and nearly 90% of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents.

The scientific consensus is clear that human activity is driving Earth’s temperature up, and scientists have recently started to connect the dots between climate change and individual weather events, like wildfires. But scientists also continue to debate the level of impact, especially considering climate change, while important, is not the only factor exacerbating extreme weather.

That’s what gives pause to New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who wrote a high-profile essay last year about how a trip to see icy Greenland melting changed his mind about climate change and to acknowledge the grave risks it poses to humanity. The trip empowered him to reexamine his thoughts and to research the topic more than ever. And “yes, it certainly helps to be in the proximity of a receding ice sheet,” he told me.

But the smokey skies of Manhattan, which he experienced along with millions of other people earlier this summer, doesn’t feel like compelling evidence of climate change to him. He cautions against such direct linking between individual weather events and climate change.

“I was able to see panoramically, long-term climate patterns,” Stephens said of his trip. “Greenland shows decades of climate change, rather than moments of it.”

Speaking of time, we’re at the very beginning of what will be many decades of experiencing the impacts of a warming world. We should be humble considering the range of future risks we face.

I also see a more positive flipside to feeling the impacts of climate change: experiencing new climate technologies, whether it’s driving an electric car or eating an alternative protein. That’s what we focus on here at Cipher, without losing sight of why we’re doing this to begin with — grappling with the impacts of a warming world.

As these new technologies develop, our feelings might sometimes be negative — think range anxiety in electric cars and the subpar flavors of meat imitation burgers.

But if past innovation is a precursor to the future, we can bet that, over time, these technologies will greatly improve our lives, not detract from them. In fact, I don’t see another way.