The story of climate change is the story of its effects on people as well as on the Earth. The best way to focus people’s attention on climate change is to understand and craft the narratives of its effects on YOU and ME.
I gave a keynote talk at a conference on social justice at Texas Tech University in March 2018. In my research, I found a fabulous work, Heat Wave, by a young sociologist, Eric Klinenberg. Through nearly five years of meticulous research, Klinenberg documented the effects of an unprecedented heat wave in Chicago in July, 1995. Working with data carefully developed by the Cook County (IL) Coroner’s Office, he documented more than 700 deaths (beyond what would have been “normal” for that one week period) and then analyzed the characteristics of those who died.
In Chicago from July 13-19, 1995, temperatures soared to 106F. The heat wave lasted a week and one day the heat Index stood at 126F. There were 740 extra/unexpected fatalities vs. “normal” for a similar summer week in Chicago. While not specifically attributed to climate change in 1995, this type of heat wave may be an annual event by 2050, and we need to be prepared for it. Already in this century, massive heat waves in Europe caused 70,000 deaths in 2003 and 50,000 deaths in Russia in 2010. We are completely unprepared for such massive tolls.
What was more interesting was the complete denial of the event. In Chicago, politicians including Mayor Daley (then running for reelection), civic leaders & the mainstream press denied or minimized what had clearly happened. Alone among officials, the County Medical Examiner refused to buy into this political narrative & documented each death. Then for his PhD thesis, Klinenberg documented the truth: it was not an act of nature, a force majeure, that caused people to die.
The main causes were some combination of these: people who died lived alone, were black, poor and/or elderly, in some cases all of the above. The secondary causes were social isolation and a lack of community, including relatives and caregivers who might have checked on many of these people.
We might lament the denial of these facts by public officials and the press, but we have to ask: aren’t we all in denial that climate change will affect US as individuals? After all, more than 40 percent of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties. You could ask: Aren’t we who live along or near the coast all in similar states of denial about climate change, sea level rise and our own vulnerabilities?
These vulnerabilities will not wait until the IPCC’s 2030 date to manifest. For example, a story in August stated simply: “Miami will be underwater soon. Its drinking water could go first.” The story concluded that “Climate change probes a city’s weaknesses much as standing water finds cracks in the foundation of a house.”
In a story this past summer, an article in the New York Times predicted from 5 to 12 times more heat-related deaths by 2080.
Hurricane Michael last week is clearly linked to climate change, since it was unseasonably warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico that gave it the energy needed to change rapidly from a late-season tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane.
The human face of climate change is the story we need to tell. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”