TW[*]3: That Was The [AGU Week] That Was ...

Signs of a ‘Magical Moment’ Bullishness … But Will It Last?

Climate attendees at AGU’s just-concluded fall meeting might well feel a surge of energy and renewed hope for doing ‘something meaningful’ to address climate challenges. The signs seem intangible but real, but also real is the question of where things go from here.


It’s easy to feel sky-high after an experience like the 2012 AGU fall meeting — actually, it’s a vast array of experiences: energized by the enthusiasm of the sessions and those around you, and bullish about the prospects for moving forward aggressively on climate matters.

Essay

For many of those attending principally because of their interest in climate matters — and one must acknowledge that they were only a slice of the some 23,000-plus overall attendees — this fall’s meeting might have been particularly energizing. At least it seems that way.

Fanning the ‘Time is Now’ Sentiments

There was a sense of being at what one seasoned climate communicator repeatedly referred to as a “magical moment,” the stars seemingly aligned. There are any number of intangibles that contributed to such sentiment, and the biggest risk in attempting to list them here is the danger of inevitable omission:

  • “It’s the economy, stupid!” James Carville, Democratic political consultant to Bill Clinton, made the phrase famous during that President’s first campaign. It’s stuck and spread. It’s not that the current global or national economy is great, or even good, mind you. It’s just an apparently growing sense that it’s finally turning a corner and beginning to get better. The worst now behind us, one hopes, at least for the moment.
  • It was unspoken, but there is little doubt that that the previous month’s national election outcomes — both for the President and for the Senate and the House — also figured into the “magical moment” sentiment. Few might seriously question that prospects for legislative, and perhaps more likely regulatory, climate progress appear brighter now than had the election results been markedly different. Even the “fiscal cliff” meme — Question, shouldn’t there also be a “climate cliff” in the public’s consciousness? — could play favorably, as a carbon tax appears may be more appealing in that larger context, and more acceptable even to some perhaps predisposed to addressing the climate issue.
  • The “Superstorm Sandy” phenomenon and the media’s and public’s perceptions of its possible links to climate change also play a factor in this mood change. Forget about the scientists’ entirely proper qualifications and caveats: It remains the case that growing concerns over 2012′s extreme weather events inevitably contribute to a more bullish mood on the part of those hoping for climate change risk management efforts. Numerous public opinion surveys support this view.
  • “The timing could not better,” a New York Times movie critic wrote in a short piece on the newly released, and now in theaters, “Chasing Ice.” With lead character and veteran environmental photographer and film-maker James Balog speaking at AGU — where, by the way, he has been a frequent attendee since his college days — more momentum still. Climate communicator Further fanning the fires of optimism and planned for around the time the next round of IPCC assessments begin to go public: announcement of an ambitious cable TV program on Showtime: “Years of Living Dangerously,” scheduled to air in the fall of 2013 and featuring Actors Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and NASCAR champion driver Jimmie Johnson.
  • Media reporting on the issue overall, mind you and not surprisingly, did not generate much enthusiasm on the part of those wanting action, many of whom still see much mass media coverage, as being too little and too often inadequate. Yet, one could hardly have missed recent major network prime-time coverage* keying-off the Sandy and NOAA’s newly released Arctic Report Card developments.
Photo 1
Journalist Julia Kumari Drapkin offered one of many AGU poster sessions, hers dealing with crowd sourcing climate change news in Colorado.

Omissions here, for sure. And it’s entirely likely that many could find altogether different reasons contributing to their own “magical moment” bullishness in the wake of the AGU meeting.

Fret not, those of you who would feel far more comfortable, and likely far more warmly welcome, attending a Heartland Institute annual meeting than the AGU extravaganza. Fret not, because this moment too could in time pass.

Goal-Based Communications Sessions

Could. But perhaps not. For there indeed seemed a sense of togetherness, coupled with a continually growing sense of need, to go further, do more, on our collective mitigation and adaptation efforts. Sure, there was abundant time spent on the educations, public affairs, and communications aspects, and not solely on the increasingly convincing and constantly growing body of climate science evidence.

Photo 2
NASA/GISS scientist James Hansen accepting Stephen Schneider science communication award during an independent session but one held during and convenient to the AGU meeting.

But it wasn’t a case of communications for the sake of communications, but rather communications as a means to a constructive end … that is, constructively addressing the climate challenges AGU conference goers overwhelmingly acknowledge to be real and growing.

That came through in repeated, and, let’s acknowledge, sometimes repetitive, “climate literacy” sessions. But the impressive scope of the efforts described in those sessions — whether aimed at informing secondary school students, college students, grad students and post-docs, or policy makers — was truly extraordinary.

The AGU fall meeting is a place where one can see virtually all of the “big names” in the climate science community, a term which in itself must be kept in the context of “big name” rhetoric involving, for instance, the Kardashians, Angelina Jolie or Kate Middleton’s “morning sickness.”

Importance of Strong … and L O N G … Science ‘Bench’

But beyond that, what stands out about the AGU meeting is the showcase it provides for scientists whose names seldom are seen beyond the pages of their peer-reviewed journals. There are for every “household name” climatologist hundreds, maybe thousands, of (no offense intended here) back-benchers. It’s in fact the strength of that bench, and not just the top bananas, that accounts for the depth, integrity, and resilience of the overall evidence-based climate science.

Photo 3
Penn State’s Michael Mann, Texas Tech’s Katharine Hayhoe, and Stanford University PhD candidate Bill Anderegg tape a radio talk-show interview held concurrently with the AGU meeting.

A magical moment? We’ll see. One potential indicator may come as early as next month, when President Obama for the second time takes the oath of office. How much, if at all, will he feel, and feed, the swell of this climate moment? How, if at all, will he address what he clearly recognizes as our climate challenges? Dare he say the magic-but-somehow-cursed words, whether “climate change” or, just imagine, “global warming”? And even if not, will he continue to fan the flames of climate bullishness apparent at, though of course not originating at, AGU?

Or will he instead temper that enthusiasm, in words and/or in action?

In the end, of course, the issue is bigger than any one person or even any one President. And the sense of momentum coming out of AGU just might flicker or be fanned even with or without the President’s input.

For now, one can revel in the energizing elixir that the 2012 “AGU Week” unquestionably was for many in the climate arena. Their hopes are high, and, some might argue, unrealistic. But were they not, there’d be even less of a prospect for doing right by the climate, the Earth, and all its inhabitants, human and otherwise, in coming years.

One can dream. Let’s.

*For those under, let’s say, 40, network prime-time news coverage refers to a news-delivery system most familiar to those in the 60+ demographic and, therefore, somewhat less dependent on tablets and cell phones as their principal means of accessing news.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: bud@yaleclimateconnections.org).
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