Dion-Kirschner: Climate change is more than a national threat, will affect each of us as individuals

Hannah Dion-Kirschner, Columnist

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The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication recently published striking new data on how Americans view climate issues. You may have run into the results, which are summarized in arresting map graphics, in a New York Times article published earlier this spring. Here’s one major takeaway: in most American counties, a majority of adults think global warming will harm people in the United States. The map of this survey question shows the U.S. primarily in shades of red, representing counties where more than 50 percent and as many as 80 percent of adults agree that global warming threatens U.S. citizens. However, the map illustrating where Americans think global warming will affect them personally looks drastically different. Only in 28 U.S. counties (out of more than 3000) do a majority of adults expect to be affected by global warming. Even these majorities are small, all under 60 percent.

The difficulty anticipating the threat climate change poses to our own livelihoods is a classic failure of human risk assessment. We can’t exactly blame people for failing to wrap their heads around the threat of climate change — it’s a universal neurological glitch that makes it difficult for us to understand risks that aren’t tangible from day to day. Corporate interests are no help, confounding the topic by denying climate change’s human causation or minimizing its possible effects. Further, it is easy for those of us who live comfortable lives, especially in prosperous inland cities, to assume we won’t feel the effects of the changing climate. All of these factors contribute to the belief many of us hold: while climate change may cause problems, the problems won’t affect me. But this belief is both wrong and dangerous.

Northwestern’s campus in Evanston, Illinois, for example, seems like an unlikely part of the country to be affected by a changing climate. We’re far from the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Gulf Coast, totally insulated from the sea level rise and the frequent and powerful hurricanes about which coastal communities have been warned. Unlike California and other areas of the Southwest, we have yet to experience a crisis of water availability — living on the shores of Lake Michigan is a sweet deal. Evanston is a well-off city, and it’s safe to assume that any new requirements of infrastructure would be within financial reach. If anything, it’s easy to think we would stand to benefit from milder winters, with no tradeoffs except a couple extra steamy summer weeks.

But even in Evanston, the current climate trajectory will affect everyone’s lives. As the Earth warms, Midwesterners are projected to see heavier winter and spring storms and drier, hotter summers. Even for the most insulated Evanstonian, this will spell more frequent dangerous conditions for commuting and outdoor work and recreation, with the highest summer temperatures rising to levels that threaten public health. Rising temperatures will also decrease air quality, exacerbating asthma, and the allergy season will lengthen as plant blooming dates shift earlier in the year. Temperature changes will expand the ranges of pest-borne diseases, and new disease outbreaks that aren’t endemic to Evanston will nevertheless spread here via national and international traffic through Chicago. Water quality will decrease as Lake Michigan, arguably Chicago’s most valuable resource, becomes more polluted during heavier spring rainfalls, and warmer temperatures will favor the growth of toxic algae. And, of course, the economic effects of medical and agricultural challenges will be felt worldwide, even in the suburban Midwest.

Evanston is far from alone: all parts of the U.S. will experience detrimental regional effects as the climate changes. Americans’ faith in their personal insulation from the climate crisis is clearly misplaced. But not only is this belief misguided, it is also one of many factors playing into dangerous delays of national action. The issue is currently of great gravity as President Donald Trump considers pulling out of the international climate agreement struck in Paris in 2015, currently the only reassurance that many nations will work to decrease human climate effects. The international community can’t afford American complacency.

The misguided belief of immunity from climate change is one that, I am hopeful, can ultimately be corrected. The fight to reveal tobacco as life-threatening is a promising example: it took decades to fight the conception that smoking tobacco was a health hazard. The effort was complicated by long-term, hard-to-discern nature of the threat and the misleading messages coming from the tobacco industry. Today, however, hardly any American smoker would think to claim, “See how healthy I look? Smoking couldn’t possibly be harming my health.” Similarly, it is crucial that we maintain an awareness that, yes, climate change will affect all of us. Try to remind yourself: this problem belongs not just to vulnerable populations, though they are indeed at greatest risk, and not just to New Yorkers or Floridians, though coastal areas will face particular challenges. Climate change will affect me, and my action is imperative.

Hannah Dion-Kirschner is a junior in Weinberg and Bienen. She can be reached at hannahdionkirschner2018@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.