July 8, 2019

A Couple of Degrees Matters

Joel Nodelman

About the Author

Joel is an engineer and risk management specialist with over forty years of professional practice. He is committed to helping his clients achieve climate resiliency and sustainability.

Today, a personal reflection on climate change and how a couple of degrees matters. I have been working on climate change issues for almost thirty years now. I had hoped that we would have reached a stage where we got over the arguments and got on with the work. But, that is a naïve hope of an old engineer.  We are still having the debate, and in some ways have not progressed all that far from the early 1990s.  Climate change is one of the major issues of our generation and we need to get on with the work.

No heating system can deliver perfectly uniform temperatures throughout a house, and drafts can magnify the perceived difference in temperatures. Try walking around with a thermometer.

Seth Shostak

Not so long ago, I attended a meeting to discuss revising engineering standards to accommodate climate change. There were many technical experts seated around the table. I was there to offer my thoughts on the revisions through a climate risk lens. The work was important. So, I was surprised when a young engineer challenged me. He said:

There is no such thing as climate change. I read some reviews in the media from credible experts. It just isn’t happening.  

He also said: 

Sure the global temperature is changing, but it is not man-made and a few degrees of change is minor. 

Not a Shining Moment

This was not my brightest moment as a climate resilience practitioner. I pushed back and argued that man-made climate change is unequivocal. It is happening, and I have worked for decades with the scientific experts that did the work to show this. While all true, this wasn’t the smartest rebuttal.  

In my defence, I was more than a little shocked by two things. First, the youth of the fellow struck me. I have had this discussion many times over the years, but mostly with older folks. Generally, the younger crowd argue that we are not moving fast enough to confront climate change. Second, I had grown accustomed to working in groups that do not debate the science. We were there to fix the problem, not to argue that there was no problem in the first place.  

As I said, this was not one of my shining moments. I felt compelled to push back. We took up valuable meeting time in the debate. And, I knew from the start, that as a denier, it would take more than a few facts to change his mind. He was intentionally disrupting the meeting, and I took the bait. Not so smart. 

Sometimes Debating Climate Change is Fruitless

As a general rule, when I am out on a job, I try to not get drawn into this climate change discussion. I know that the question is inevitable, as Joan and I promote climate resilience. Thus, our work has an underlying assumption that climate change is real, and we are working to improve resilience to the impacts of that change. Even so, often folks confront us who want to debate the science. Once again, they argue that even though the climate is changing; it is natural and a couple of degrees of change won’t matter. During a winter cold spell, we often hear:

We could sure use a couple of degrees of global warming now!

I try to focus on the job at hand, increasing resilience, and making our clients safer in increasingly harsh and unpredictable weather. I know that a couple of degrees matters and debating climate science with a denier is mostly fruitless, and I try not to do it, at least when I am working. In social situations, I may engage in the debate. But, I care about climate change, and it’s disheartening to discuss it with people that simply refuse to hear the facts.

An Analogy – Why a Couple of Degrees is Important

To put this into perspective, I like to think about setting the household thermostat. This activity is so mundane that we hardly think about it. But, if you live with a partner you know that the thermostat setting can be a serious bone of contention. It affects the way we dress, how well we sleep, how efficiently we work, and last but not least our household expenses. So, partners and families can get into passionate debates about the setting. Sometimes, the thermostat is reset many times in a single day as different members of the family move the setting up and down depending on their own level of comfort. These changes are only about one or two degrees, but we feel them and we respond.  Sometimes, we even argue about them. And, sometimes the arguments get intense. 

So, why do we care about a couple of degrees? Mostly, because we can feel it and we care. In fact, the argument that a couple of degrees of change is not important focusses on numbers. However, folks lose the connection between those numbers and how we experience the real world.

Saying a Couple of Degrees of Change is Minor Simply Ignores the Impacts

In some ways, climate change is like the thermostat setting going up. I know this is rather simplistic, but our activities are resetting the global thermostat and we are seeing and feeling the impacts of those changes.

As I said, the analogy is simplistic. Often, when we discuss a couple of degrees of change, we lose sight of the impacts of the change. More severe and more unpredictable weather follows from the change. In fact, Katharine Hayhoe has coined the phrase “Global Weirding” to describe this reality.  So a couple of degrees matters. Not only can we feel the direct affect of such a minor change, but the resulting weather can be very dangerous, damaging infrastructure, costing money, and most important costing lives.

Try As We May, Turning Back the Thermostat is Hard

We understand that climate change is real and that a couple of degrees matters. However, we cannot simply turn the thermostat back. In fact, most of the work shows that the thermostat setting will continue to rise. We need to take action and it is difficult. So, I care about climate denial.  This issue goes well beyond our political and religious beliefs and can hurt us all the same way. 

A Couple of Degrees Matters
We are like crabs in the cooking pot

n some ways we are like crabs in the cooking pot. When we first get into the water, with all the other crabs, it is nice and comfortable.  But as the water gets hotter, we scrabble with each other for dominance trying to get to the top of the pile, fighting with each other, unable to escape the pot. The winner rests at the top of the pile, but is just as cooked as all the other crabs. We spend so much energy clawing at each other and so little on confronting the problem.  

Yes, a Couple of Degrees Matters

As I said from the beginning, this is a personal reflection of an old engineer who has worked on climate change for almost three decades.  However, we need to understand that a couple of degrees matter. In fact, a lot of work now shows that we can expect far more than a couple of degrees of change.  With that in mind, we need to stop fighting with each other. While I understand that there is room for debate, as that is the way of good science, I worry that debate has replaced action. And, this is a case where the earlier we act the better. We need to get on with solving the problem, change the direction of the thermostat, and respond to the changes that we will inevitably see in the meantime. I like to think that we have more common sense than a pot of crabs.

Call to Action

You are not alone.  There are folks here to help you out.  Seek the advice of climate risk and resiliency experts.  Do not be afraid to engage in the debate.  We all have something valuable to offer. 

We provide ongoing commentary on these issues. Feel free to contact us, we are always happy to discuss your climate, risk and resiliency.

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