Slate: That sounds incredibly daunting. How could we head off a threat like that?
Titley: I like to think of climate action as a three-legged stool. There’s business saying, “This is a risk factor.” Coca-Cola needs to preserve its water rights, Boeing has their supply chain management, Exxon has all but priced carbon in. They have influence in the Republican Party. There’s a growing divestment movement. The big question is, does it get into the California retirement fund, the New York retirement fund, those $100 billion funds that will move markets? Politicians also have responsibility to act if the public opinion changes. Flooding, storms, droughts are all getting people talking about climate change. I wonder if someday Atlanta will run out of water?
Think back to the Apollo program. President Kennedy motivated us to land a man on the moon. How that will play out exactly this time around, I don’t know. When we talk about climate, we need to do everything we can to set the stage before the actors come on. And they may only have one chance at success. We should keep thinking: How do we maximize that chance of success?
Climate change isn’t just an environmental issue; it’s a technology, water, food, energy, population issue. None of this happens in a vacuum.
Slate: Despite all the data and debates, the public still isn’t taking that great of an interest in climate change. According to Gallup, the fraction of Americans worrying about climate “a great deal” is still roughly one-third, about the same level as in 1989. Do you think that could ever change?
Titley: A lot of people who doubt climate change got co-opted by a libertarian agenda that tried to convince the public the science was uncertain—you know, the Merchants of Doubt. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of people in high places who understand the science but don’t like where the policy leads them: too much government control.
Where are the free-market, conservative ideas? The science is settled. Instead, we should have a legitimate policy debate between the center-right and the center-left on what to do about climate change. If you’re a conservative—half of America—why would you take yourself out of the debate? C’mon, don’t be stupid. Conservative people want to conserve things. Preserving the climate should be high on that list.
Slate: What could really change in the debate on climate?
Titley: We need to start prioritizing people, not polar bears. We’re probably less adaptable than them, anyway. The farther you are from the Beltway, the more you can have a conversation about climate no matter how people vote. I never try to politicize the issue.
Most people out there are just trying to keep their job and provide for their family. If climate change is now a once-in-a-mortgage problem, and if food prices start to spike, people will pay attention. Factoring in sea-level rise, storms like Hurricane Katrina and Sandy could become not once-in-100-year events, but once-in-a-mortgage events. I lost my house in Waveland, Miss., during Katrina. I’ve experienced what that’s like.
Slate: How quickly could the debate shift? How can we get past the stalemate on climate change and start focusing on what to do about it?
Titley: People working on climate change should prepare for catastrophic success. I mean, look at how quickly the gay rights conversation changed in this country. Ten years ago, it was at best a fringe thing. Nowadays, it’s much, much more accepted. Is that possible with climate change? I don’t know, but 10 years ago, if you brought up the possibility we’d have gay marriages in dozens of states in 2014, a friend might have said “Are you on drugs?” When we get focused, we can do amazing things. Unfortunately, it’s usually at the last minute, usually under duress.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.