Published September 16th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
Rising sea levels. An extraordinary inland hurricane ripping through the Corn Belt. Uncontrolled wildfires scorching the West Coast. Shrinking glaciers in the Arctic.
We are already seeing the effects of climate change.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found that the average yearly temperatures in both Missouri and Kansas have been steadily increasing since 1950. Last year was the second hottest on record.
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, if global temperatures increase 2.7 degrees fahrenheit, (a number that scientists believe will be reached between 2030 and 2052 unless unprecedented action is taken) more than 70% of coral reefs will die, disrupting the food chain and livelihood of over 500 million people. Millions of people living on the coasts could be forced to flee inward due to rising sea levels. In the Midwest, flooding and extreme rain will impact infrastructure, and heat waves will affect agriculture.
All of this may be scary, but there is a silver lining. Most Americans agree it’s real.
According to the new 2020 Yale Climate Opinion Map, the majority of Americans (72%) believe global warming is happening. The study found that in Missouri and Kansas 67% of people now believe in global warming. The Kansas City area matched the national average at 72%.
The study surveyed more than 25,000 Americans, asking them several questions related to climate change. The questions ranged from belief in climate change, to whether human behavior influences climate outcomes, and support of climate-related public policies. The model has a margin of error of 7% at the state level, and 8% at the county level.
While the study did find that an overwhelming majority believe in climate change, a majority doesn’t believe it will personally affect them.
“There is essentially an optimism bias,” said Jennifer Marlon, a Ph.D. Research Scientist at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. “We tend to acknowledge that people in our community, or places farther away, or even in other countries are going to get impacted. But we tend to think that we personally are somehow protected, and so we often underestimate the risk.”
In this region, 37% of Missourians and Kansans believe they will be harmed personally by global warming, 6 percentage points below the national average. In contrast, 69% of Missourians, and 67% of Kansans believe global warming will harm future generations.
That could be the symptom of a lack of understanding of how imminent the threat of climate change may be.
“It’s not taken seriously enough. We’re not really understanding that we’re talking about a really severe threat,” Marlon said. “We’re talking about the extreme weather we’re seeing just being the tip of the iceberg. The heat we are seeing this summer, don’t think of this as the hottest year on record, think of this as the coolest summer you are going to have for the next 20 or 30 years.”
Roeland Park Mayor Mike Kelly, a member of the executive board for Climate Action KC, says the effects of climate change are already showing in Kansas City.
“We’re going to see increased heating degree days,” Kelly said. “We’ve seen increased extreme weather and flooding on the Kaw (Kansas River) that’s affecting various communities.”
Kelly also noted that vulnerable populations that live on low income, rely on government assistance, live in older housing, lack access to transportation or live in food deserts will feel the impacts worse than others.
Climate change is also currently affecting health issues. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, rising temperatures caused by climate change lead to a longer allergy season. They estimate rising temperatures have caused the pollen season to be 11 to 27 days longer.
The Yale study asked Americans whether they supported a number of climate change related policies.
Funding research into renewable energy sources, regulating CO2 as a pollutant, providing tax rebates for energy-efficient vehicles and solar panels and teaching about climate change in schools all have more than 70% approval in Missouri and Kansas.
Kelly said that Climate Action KC has seen an increase in support for green policies around the KC metro. Half a dozen cities are participating in Evergy’s Renewable Direct Program, which allows a city to acquire 100% of its metered electricity from renewable sources — in this case, a wind farm.
“When you look at these solutions for their own sake, you realize that a lot of them have a great fiscal impact outside of their emissions reduction,” Kelly said. “What we’re seeing is that we’ve shown people the long-term plan to the dollars and cents, and the improvement in quality of life for things like making your building more energy efficient, or providing walking and biking trails, or multimodal transportation options. People like those solutions.”
Despite the large support for climate policies, there is less demand for elected officials to address the issue of climate change.
A narrower majority of 56% of Missourians and 54% of Kansans believe the president should be doing more to address climate change. Those numbers drop to 49% and 48%, respectively, when asked the same question about their state’s governor. And 44% in both states think global warming should be a high priority for the next president and Congress.
“It’s fascinating. So what this says (is) in theory people do support these policies, they do support action, but they somehow don’t want the government to do it,” Marlon said. “That really gets at this anti-government sentiment that really runs deep.”
Marlon said that while market-based policies, and buy-in from citizens and corporations will definitely help, the government must play a role in mitigating the effects of climate change.
Climate Action KC’s executive board is made up of several elected officials in the area, including Kelly, Shawnee Councilwoman Lindsey Constance, Gladstone Mayor Carol Suter and Smithville Mayor Damien Boley. The organization is currently working on their 2020 Climate Action Playbook that will give officials and organization concrete steps they can take towards helping the environment. The playbook is slated to release in December of this year.
One of the findings of the Yale study is that less than 35% of Missourians and Kansans say they rarely or never talk about global warming. Even less see stories about climate change. Both states reported less than 25% of people hear about climate change in the media.
“We have to be able to have a productive dialogue about the solutions,” Marlon said. “There are many things we can do (to fight climate change), but we need the public first to understand this threat, and then be willing to talk about these solutions and decide which ones to support.”
Another big hurdle is convincing the human race to admit fault. While the study found that most people believe in climate change, it found far less people who believe humans are to blame (53% in Missouri, 52% in Kansas).
According to a study of scientific consensus on climate change, 97% of scientists believe that climate change is a result of human emissions such as the burning of fossil fuels and some agricultural practices.
Marlon says the problem is two-fold. One, the false balance of pitting climate scientists against climate change deniers in debate formats in the media. Two, the nature of science, and it’s inherent embrace of debate, and constant craving for progress.
“I mean we get rewarded when we find something new,” Marlon said. “We have publications from the 1920s and 30s documenting how burning coal and oil and gas can warm the climate, so that’s nothing new. We don’t emphasize what’s already solid and agreed upon.”
Last year Climate Action KC held their 2019 Metro KC Climate Action Summit, where more than 750 people came together to talk about the issues facing our planet. They had more than 500 people sign up for their 2020 summit, which was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Both Kelly and Marlon agree public education is essential to saving the Earth.
“Forty-three percent (of people) don’t understand it (human impact on climate change),” Marlon said. “I mean if you don’t understand that, then why would you think that we can actually fix it?”
Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.