If you’re like me and listen to public radio a lot, then Kai Ryssdal’s voice saying, “Let’s do the numbers!” followed by a rundown of the day’s stock index performance, is in the background of a regular day.
I am one of the just over 50% of Americans who own stock, but while I’m picking up my kid from daycare or making dinner, I am not thinking about the performance of my investments. These daily ups and downs matter little for planning for my future. And yet, it’s there, a daily reminder of stock index values, and a prime for how I should feel about it.
I’ve recently been thinking more about the numbers I hear, that we all hear, on a regular basis. More importantly, I’ve been thinking about how the numbers we hear shape our democracies, our climate, and our future.
The numbers we hear matter because they help identify and shape the issues we talk about, which impacts the things we take action on through democratic processes. These numbers matter for climate change because climate change is so big it can be hard to figure out how it connects to the things we experience daily, much less what we need to do to address it.
How do numbers shape public conversations and, therefore, democracy and climate?
Let’s take a look at the three big categories of numbers heard regularly in public conversations and think about what they mean for our communities, democracy, and climate change.
I don’t follow a lot of sports. Yet as someone who gets a daily newspaper and listens to radio news, I always have a sense of how my local sports teams are doing. Win/loss records, batting averages, points scored, all numbers I hear that just pass through my brain. And I kind of like it, actually. At the core, sports challenge us and inspire us and sometimes bring us together – not a bad thing in the age of democratic declines and climate change.
Again, one of the drivers of local news. And so useful. I live in a state that can fluctuate 30F degrees in temperature in a single day. I’m almost incapable of leaving my house without an extra layer or two of clothing, and I always check the weather before I do. Daily temperatures, pollen levels, monthly temperature averages. These numbers matter for daily living. Unfortunately, when they are presented, the climate context of how these things are shifting are rarely included. Our local news sources too often miss the climate context of these predictions, and this missing link makes it harder for the rest of us to make climate connections.
The big one, the whole reason I thought about writing this post. Economic numbers are everywhere. Constant stock updates at the bottom of cable news coverage, radio news updates on stock indexes multiple times a day, job numbers, unemployment numbers, GDP tracking. We live in a constant thrum of numbers telling us that traditional economic growth is the most important thing.
Discussions of the relationship between economic growth and climate change are ongoing. Yet here the point remains that most public conversations about the future of our communities prioritize classical economic growth as most important. This context makes it harder for us to have the debates and make the changes most needed to deal with climate change because it elevates one value – economic growth – over most other things people value. It also suggests that growth is paramount for health and well-being.
What numbers could help strengthen democracy and address climate change?
Let’s consider what it might look like to be regularly hearing numbers that could help us collectively deal with a changing climate. Here are a few categories and suggestions.
The big numbers on climate change are at least somewhat known. Among them are the commitment to limiting warming to 2 degrees C under the Paris Agreement (though limiting warming to 1.5 degrees would save a lot of lives) and the idea that 350 parts per million is the safe concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere (current concentration is over 400 ppm). These snapshot numbers are helpful, but they don’t give a sense of how the climate is changing or how fast. Most important, these numbers give people no context for understanding how climate change affects their daily lives..
We could use some daily, weekly, and monthly reminders of changes in the climate and the connection to the things we care about. The Guardian newspaper recently committed to including daily tracking of atmospheric CO2 concentration on its weather page. This number should be regularly reported in print, radio, and broadcast news. In my own local paper, I’d love to see a daily tracker of how many days have been above average in the last year, both locally and globally. I’d also like to see things like ice out, big rain events, and heat waves tracked in a way that highlighted the climate change context of extreme weather events. Maybe they could even add a climate box on the weather section, with statistics relevant to the season.
Climate and health numbers
Making the connection between a changing climate and health impacts would highlight the increasing urgency of action to reduce emissions. My local paper already has a daily pollen report. A note about how many pollen days compared to average would be a useful addition because climate change makes pollen, and therefore allergies, worse. Newspapers could do some work researching their local areas’ climate threats and develop trackers for them. California papers, for example, could track acres burned by wildfire, lives lost, and air quality impacts, with climate context to help people make the connections. Any coastal city could track days of flooding, land lost, or sea level rise, with some context for property impacts and vulnerability to storms.
The climate is changing in the context of societies with huge inequalities. These inequalities leave some people more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than others. Even beyond climate change, this inequality itself destabilizes democracies and societies in general. Recently, I was (somewhat nerdily, I admit) excited to learn that the Federal Reserve of the United States has developed a dataset that can provide quarterly estimates of wealth inequality in the United States (Here’s an op-ed with some background, and the paper outlining the study behind the dataset). I sure hope we all starting hearing more numbers about the inequality undermining both democracies and the climate.
Climate change challenges so many of our democratic systems – from media struggling to make sense of how to report on such a huge, complex threat, to the fossil fuel money impacting policymaking. The numbers we hear on a regular basis won’t erase these challenges. But questioning these numbers, and expecting and asking for some different ones, could help us build the public conversation muscles we need to deal with climate change.
What numbers do you want to hear more in public conversation? How will these numbers help shape our public conversation in useful ways?