Want to Make Climate Impacts More Relatable? Start With Water
When an issue is as big and abstract as climate change, how can we make it easier for people to grasp? One of the best ways is to point to local impacts and tell personal stories that help people visualize how climate change is impacting people right now. And whether it’s a flood caused by torrential rain, storm surge from a hurricane, rising sea levels, or a years-long drought, one thing many climate impacts have in common is water.
Wherever people live in the United States, they can almost certainly point to a drought, wildfire, or severe weather event that affected them or people they know. While we often think of impacts in terms of damaged homes and businesses, ruined crops, or washed-out roads, the impacts go beyond that. As a new report from the World Bank points out, climate change also affects water availability and quality. For example, rising seas are causing the salinization of the aquifers that supply South Florida with its drinking water.
Food security is also an issue. Changes in rainfall patterns can affect crop production, leading to spikes in the price of food and potential food shortages. Food may even become less nutritious if climate change continues to worsen. A 2014 Harvard University study found that when staple crops like wheat and rice are grown with high levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, they contain lower levels of zinc, iron, and other essential minerals, as well as diminished levels of protein.
Then, there are the mental health impacts of climate change. Floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and other severe weather events create stress and anxiety when they are happening, for obvious reasons. But the psychological effects can linger after the danger is gone. People often feel a sense of vulnerability, hopelessness, or mourning for what’s been lost. Severe weather events can also lead to displacement, if people can’t return home and must set up new lives and find jobs elsewhere.
Drought creates its own form of anxiety, because it’s hard to know whether a dry spell is temporary or the beginning of a longer phase. Uncertainty coupled with the impacts of drought on crops, livestock, and other forms of livelihood can lead to depression. (You can learn more about the psychological effects of climate change in the upcoming webinar, Climate Changes Mental Health.)
There is good news, though – the fact that these impacts are all around us make them very relatable. Bringing up a recent, local flood or severe storm is a good way to help a friend or family member see the how their own lives are already being affected by climate change. If they remember getting sticker shock over the record-high price of beef last year, you can tie that to the epic drought in Texas. Once you’ve helped them understand the link, you can shift the conversation topic to solutions.
As the World Bank report went on to say, though the potential impacts of climate change on water availability could be severe, better water management can substantially limit these adverse affects. Utilities, communities, and governments have a huge opportunity to incorporate climate change planning into their operations and conservation efforts. This will require strong, far-reaching policies, but that’s where we can make a difference. You and your friend, colleague, or family member can advocate for and support smart water management and other resilience efforts, as well as climate solutions that help fight climate change at the source, such as clean energy, good public transit, and better fuel efficiency.
The key to communicating about climate is bringing the large and abstract down to a personal level. At its core, climate change is about our water and air, the two things most elemental to human life. What could be more personal, or more important?