Still True, Still Inconvenient: What We’ve Learned Since 2006

Seven years after Al Gore's pivotal film opened our eyes to climate change, what do we know about this accelerating threat?

Sculptures outside the Copenhagen conference center where, in 2009, delegates failed to strike a comprehensive global deal to combat climate change. Since then, the world has seen a series of increasingly dire headlines, reports and studies about the impact of warming global temperatures. (Photo: Getty Images)

Jun 9, 2013
Rachel is a science journalist writing for venues such as The New York Times and Smithsonian.

At a presentation in Long Beach, California, this past February, former Vice President Al Gore cued up one of the most chilling scenes from his 2006 Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

“[Climate change] deniers said this would never happen,” Gore told the crowd of about 50 people as they watched a computer simulation of floodwaters engulfing lower Manhattan.

Al Gore then played a news montage from Hurricane Sandy in October of 2012, in which the Hudson River rose up to swallow the southern tip of Manhattan.

The sobering parallel underscored a renewed sense of urgency around the issue of climate change. “Superstorm Sandy, in particular, represented something of a tipping point, I believe,” Gore told the crowd.

It would seem so. A recent spate of extreme weather events has forced the concerns voiced by An Inconvenient Truth back into the national conversation. And while scientists still cannot definitively say that climate change causes events like Sandy, they have developed a better understanding in recent years of how it may have exacerbated recent weather, amplifying the frequency and severity of such cataclysmic events—in the manner, say, of a steroid’s effects on an athlete’s performance.

“Greenhouse gasses could be juicing the environment by making extreme events more frequent and more intense,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications at Yale University.

On the seventh anniversary of Gore’s call to action, with consensus building that the perilous effects of global warming are now reaching an undeniable level of magnitude and frequency, it’s time to look at how far we’ve come—and how much more there is to do.

Of Heat, Storms and Snow

Al Gore filmed An Inconvenient Truth in 2005, which was, at the time, the hottest year on record. But the March 2012 heatwave that blanketed states east of the Mississippi River shattered all previous records, setting more than 7,000 new all-time highs that month. Throughout the remainder of 2012, weather stations around the country reported more than 34,000 daily high records, making it the hottest year ever in the U.S.

“What’s become unquestionable in the last five years is that the number of warm extremes we’re seeing is going up, both in frequency and intensity,” says Martin Tingley, a research associate at Harvard University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences who specializes in temperature changes in high northern latitudes. “I’d say the science linking increase in mean temperature to rising carbon dioxide is pretty rock solid.”

A recent paper Tingley published in Nature shows that the summer of 2010 in western Russia, in which 55,000 people lost their lives to the heat, was the warmest in 600 years.

“These are events people notice,” Tingley says.

On the flipside, the six years following 2007 also saw the highest number of extreme rainfall events in U.S. history, according to records dating back to 1905.

While this most recent six-year block statistically tied with 1995-2000, it was about 32 percent higher than the long-term average over the past century. Over the past seven years, “the particular historic trend towards more extreme rainfall events has indeed continued,” says Kenneth Kunkel, an extreme rainfall expert and research professor at North Carolina State University and the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites.

Kunkel predicts that the trend will continue. “I think there is an expectation based on some pretty fundamental physics that we still think it’s likely that, over the long term, we’ll continue to see these increases,” Kunkel says.

The years since 2006 have generally been an active time for hurricanes, and 2011 was one of the worst years on record for heavy rainfall in terms of death and damage, but scientists are still determining whether there is a long-term trend in those extreme storm events.

One possible culprit for the severe storms: warmer oceans. Experts have observed increased water vapor in the atmosphere—which is tied to both melting sea ice cover and warming oceans. But figuring out whether there is a causal relationship between the two will require more studies.

Changing Conversations

The years leading up to 2008 marked the high point in the nation’s public engagement with climate change. The Hollywood climate horror blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow hit box offices; Al Gore and the IPCC took home the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change; even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger set new precedents for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And while the media was still giving near-equal weight to scientists and climate naysayers, climate change was being featured prominently and often in newspaper and television coverage. 

Then came 2008.

Along with the financial crisis, ClimateGate, and a noticeable decline in media attention, the number of Americans who believed climate change was both man-made and occurring dropped by 16 percent.

Moreover, climate change became increasingly politically polarized as conservatives and the fossil fuel industry kicked into action to squash a major climate change bill intended to reduce carbon emissions. Some Republican leaders began calling climate change a hoax.

Since about 2010, public opinion about climate change has steadily regained some of its former stature, though it’s yet not equivalent to 2007 levels.

The media has, for the most part, moved beyond assigning equal consideration to scientists and deniers—but amidst bankrupt newsrooms and shuttered environment desks, the capacity for carrying out accurate, hard-hitting climate coverage has been seriously compromised.

“I think the media has a better understanding and grasp of climate change science,” says David Sassoon, the publisher of InsideClimate News, a nonprofit that won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for national reporting and was founded around the same time An Inconvenient Truth came out. “The problem now, however, is that environmental coverage, including climate coverage, is diminishing.”

Despite the drop-off in media attention, awareness seems to be on the rise, and many believe it’s the undeniability of extreme weather that may be pushing climate change to the forefront of people’s minds.

Around 80 percent of the U.S. population, or 243 million people, live in counties that have experienced some weather-related disaster since 2007; two out of three Americans say the weather has gotten worse over the past several years, and 58 percent attribute some of those changes to global warming, according to a new survey published by Yale University and George Mason University.

Yale’s Anthony Leiserowitz agrees the shift in attitude may be due to recent extreme weather events. While Americans once thought of climate change as something polar bears, developing countries and future generations would have to contend with, he says, people now realize that “even Americans are vulnerable to the impacts of a climate system gone awry.”

The issue remains polarized along partisan lines, however, and Al Gore himself remains a highly politicized figurehead for the movement. Recent research indicates that ideology and political party still remain the top predictors of a person’s opinion on climate change, regardless of heatwaves or hurricanes.

We the People

Overall, the public and the media may have a better understanding of climate science, but there’s still a disconnect between how we view the environment and how we see everything else—business, national security, agriculture, energy, urban infrastructure, health, and diplomacy.

The climate change conversation applies to many more discussions than let on by the compartmentalized science coverage it’s often confined to.

“There’s a misunderstanding of the fact that the environment is the largest envelope we live within, and that all of these other worlds live inside of it,” Sassoon says. “I think our perspective is off.”

The complexities of communicating that message, in any form, are beginning to emerge. Leiserowitz and his colleagues found that there is really no such thing as “the American public” when it comes to climate change.

Instead, according to studies they conducted, people today fall into six different groups when it comes to climate change belief. On one end of the spectrum are “the dismissives” (eight percent), who adamantly deny climate change’s existence, and on the other end are “the ‘alarmed” (16 percent), who are extremely concerned about climate change.

In the middle are the groups who haven’t made up their minds; they range from “the cautious” to “the doubtful,” and are the most likely to be influenced by extreme weather events paired with trusted sources of information.

“Americans are increasingly connecting the dots between climate change and these extreme natural disasters we’ve been experiencing,” says Leiserowitz. The hope, of course, is that it won’t take too many such catastrophes to win over the hearts and minds of climate change deniers.

Al Gore may have put it best himself back in 2006. “It takes time to connect the dots, I know that,” he said. “But I also know that there can be a day of reckoning when you wish you had connected the dots more quickly.”

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