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How the climate debate changed this week

Eye of hurricane michael
Hurricane Michael was captured from the International Space Station on Oct. 10. Photo: NASA/ISS

There was a quiet change this week in the tone of climate coverage. Long siloed, the conversation took on at least a temporary new urgency and insistence after a UN report predicting dire effects as soon as 2040 — just 22 years from now.

Why it matters: If there was any doubt that this should be story #1, it was laid to rest by the combination of this report and the events of this week: An astonishingly strong hurricane, which ravaged the Gulf Coast, was forming at the same time scientists held a press conference in Incheon, South Korea, to release the findings.

Insights about Sunday night's UN report:

  • It wasn't expected to get the blanket coverage that it did. It was easier to assume that reporters would dismiss it as 'scientists call for totally unrealistic thing to happen.'
  • However, the sense of urgency came with which these scientists approached their work, and the message they intended to send — that the warming impacts we thought we'd see at higher amounts of warming, we're already seeing.
  • Time's up: It's take action now, or pay for it later.
  • Unfortunately, some stories may have gone too far, and conveyed a 'Time's up: It's act now or we all die' sort of message, which isn't accurate and is utterly immobilizing.

Some publications have recognized this more than others: Climate change is not just a political story. It's not a he said/she said thing anymore — the science is too clear, the impacts too obvious, the serious impacts as well as deployable solutions too imminent.

  • Now it's a business story, a human interest story, a legal story and increasingly a technology one as well.

The report lit a bigger fire than anticipated, since it said something not entirely new, but definitely more urgent.

  • Many climate experts tend to think, perhaps for sanity's sake, that we can't really be so stupid a species as to drive straight off the climate cliff. Yet so far, that's the direction we've been heading. This report was like a quick pit stop along that road, with everyone at a roadside diner warning us to turn around.

Go deeper: In a new story, Andrew talked with three scientists who have gravitas in terms of their research work, but are also skilled at humanizing the problem.