By Kermit M. Hovey, Jr.

A Matter of Perspective?

We’ve all seen the headlines and reports declaring that last month was the hottest July on record, not just for the US but for the entire globe. We may also have witnessed climate skeptics suggesting that maybe it’s not so bad after all. Maybe it’s just a matter of perspective. Why not look to the future? After all, July wasn’t so much the hottest July ever — it was the coolest July of the rest of your life! Given the trendlines of fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and global warming increases, the planet will continue to get warmer. Consequently, we have every reason, skeptics would suggest, to be chill about the fact that this past July was actually cooler (than the future), rather than getting all hot and bothered about the fact that it was hotter (than the past).

It’s true that if we look at one point in time, all places everywhere on the planet are not all simultaneously warmer than they were a year ago. While global average and other temperature records all over the world were broken by new highs, some places (including the Madison area) actually avoided the extreme heat that has boiled and broiled elsewhere.

Further, if we look at one point on the planet, every moment of time was not necessarily warmer than a previous moment, particularly from year to year. Some coming years may expose us to warmer or cooler temperatures. Confusingly, the changes of day-to-day weather can make it hard to feel the steadily increasing climb of overall climatic temperatures.

But simply changing perspectives by looking backward or forward or calling a given temperature “cooler” or “hotter” unfortunately does not change underlying realities. The accuracy of past projections into the present gives us good reason to accept present projections. On average and overall, the climate promises to continue warming. Skeptics have cited deviations at specific times or places from that trend to dismiss human-caused climate change. Nevertheless, the laws of physics and the processes of nature remain unswayed. As greenhouse gas emissions have continued to accumulate in the atmosphere, the globe has warmed, and the climate has become less hospitable.

Projections into future years show more of what we have seen this summer. Climate change’s plague of heat, let alone other effects, will spread, intensify, and cost us:

  • Increased illness, death, and healthcare costs from heat exhaustion, heat stroke, kidney disease, and more
  • Increased utility bills to, for example, cover escalating air conditioning costs
  • Reduced productivity and increased illness among laborers in outdoor occupations (e.g., agricultural field work)
  • Reduced productivity and increased illness among laborers in indoor occupations (e.g., factory work, particularly in spaces without air conditioning)
  • More intense, widespread wildfires, with local destruction of ecosystems, far-ranging reduction of air quality, and increased respiratory disease and death
  • Reduced agricultural output and increased costs for food caused by drought and heat
  • Disruptions in air travel as heat damages runways, disrupts ground operations, and reduces aircrafts’ physical ability to take off and fly
  • Dirtier air, especially as higher temperatures increase ozone levels
  • Sea-level rise as warmer water expands at a global scale
  • Reduced glacial ice cover
  • Widespread species extinction
  • And more…

Or Insanity?

A popular meme with at least a germ of truth asserts, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” As a society, we are certainly doing some destructive things over and over again. We are denying the reality of climate change. We are declining to take sufficiently speedy and adequately comprehensive steps. We are not abandoning dirty polluting fossil fuels fast enough. We are not adopting and installing clean energy alternatives fast enough. That’s insane.

We need to view climate change as a problem or predicament that we cannot make go away by looking at it differently or by not looking at it all. Climate change will happen whether we observe it or not. As long as we continue the insanity of extracting and burning fossil fuels, we will see the same results. We will see dangerous climate change and its increasingly tragic consequences.

But what if we embraced the hopeful insanity of taking action on climate over and over again and hoping for different results? After all, to act with the hope of creating a better tomorrow often looks insane. Whether once again writing a letter to the editor or a guest column, sitting down to talk to a political leader, showing up at a protest rally, organizing an educational Zoom meeting, attending a summit, participating in a conference, or talking to a friend, stranger, or family member, climate activists do the same things over and over again. We need the perspective of hopeful insanity that our activist forebears had. In movements to abolish slavery, achieve women’s suffrage, and extend civil rights, they took action over and over again and eventually got different results. Hopeful insanity prevailed, even if imperfectly or incompletely. We can hope it will prevail as well as we work with persistence and perseverance for a livable climate.

Among other things, Kermit Hovey is a Climate Steward, Citizens’ Climate Lobbyist, Wisconsin Creation Care Ambassador, 350 Wisconsin Climate Advocate, and Middleton Sustainability Committee Member.

An earlier version of this post appeared in the Middleton Times Tribune.