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Six Questions About This Year’s Climate Shocks

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Record-breaking heat. Destructive wildfires. Intense rainfall and flooding. These are just a few examples of the extreme events we’ve witnessed in 2023 thus far—and the year isn’t over yet. With climate change unquestionably driving more intense and frequent extreme weather events, individuals and communities across the globe are regularly bearing the impacts of weather-related occurrences once thought to be once-in-a-century disasters.

We sat down with Dana R. Fisher, SIS professor and director of AU’s Center for Environment, Community, & Equity (CECE), to talk about the climate shocks we’ve seen in 2023, how communities can respond, and her forthcoming book, titled Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action (Columbia University Press, 2024).

*Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What is a “climate shock”?
While a lot of people talk about climate shocks, when I was doing research for my new book, which is called Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action, I started looking at all the people who've written about climate shocks, and there is no clear definition out there in the literature, which is kind of crazy. So, I created one: climate shocks are deviations from normal environmental patterns in the form of droughts, floods, heat waves, or other extreme events that have been exacerbated by climate change. It’s basically everything that the world has been experiencing during summer 2023. In all these cases, we've seen deviations from normal weather patterns, normal temperatures, and normal rain patterns that all have a connection to climate change. That is a climate shock by definition.
For several days in June, Washington, DC—and the northwest, including urban centers of New York City and Boston—experienced poor air quality impacts from wildfire smoke drifting from Canada. This was the first time this type of wildfire smoke has been literally in the faces of most of the people responsible for US climate policy. Is smoke in the face of DC policymakers an effective climate shock to inspire change when it comes to climate policy?
Research tells us that when people individually experience a climate shock or have people close to them within their personal social networks experience a climate shock, it does have an effect on their willingness and openness to think about what kind of climate action is necessary. This is actually something that has been documented somewhat in the literature. Particularly, people who say that in the past six months they experienced a climate shock tend to be more likely to be engaged in a whole range of ways around climate change. Nobody's ever done this work around policymakers yet, but I can tell you that it's been done around individual people.
This weekend, when I go up to survey at the March to End Fossil Fuels, which is the big climate march happening this weekend in New York City, I've added a question on my survey that specifically lists all of the different types of [events] that have manifested as climate shocks recently in the United States. I list them all to see if people who are out on the streets experienced any of them personally. I'm working with a team of folks to run the same survey questions to a national sample so that we can examine if there are differences between the people who are not in the streets and those who are in the streets, in terms of their exposure to climate shocks and climate risks broadly. Because that's the question. So, the answer is yes, there's reason to believe it, but we need to do more research, and that is the focus of some of the research I'm doing right now.
This summer, we’ve also seen an array of climate-driven weather events impacting communities across the United States and around the world. As we approach Climate Week NYC and the Climate Ambition Summit next week, as well as the UN Climate Negotiations (COP28) later this year, what role do you think extreme weather and climate shocks will play in these discussions?
I've been studying climate action in terms of climate policymaking, but also climate activism, for the past 25 plus years, and one of the things that I've documented—and I write specifically about for this new book—is how it is only through climate shocks that motivate people and open up these windows of opportunity that we see the possibility for sufficient policymaking. So, the more climate shocks there are, the more individuals personally feel the risk of climate change and the more likely we are to see that kind of pressure applied to our policymakers in terms of decision-makers in the government—but also businesses—to respond in some sort of an adequate way to the climate crisis. And, fortunately or unfortunately, it's kind of a strange way of saying this, but I don't expect that we will have the level of climate shocks needed to bring about the kind of social change and decision-making that is necessary to stop the climate crisis—certainly not in the next two weeks and likely not in the next few months.
One of the things that's really disheartening is that the G20 just met, and while there was a lot of pressure to try to get them to talk through fossil fuel phase-out and commitment, the countries aren't willing to do that. In fact, at the G8 earlier this summer, the communique that came out of that specifically had the leaders all talking about how natural gas was part of our future in terms of moving forward generally. This decision  flies in  the face of what the IPCC tells us is is needed to get to the kind of changes that are needed, as well as what the UN Secretary-General now has been screaming from his mountaintop for almost a year. He is constantly giving these impassioned speeches about how action is needed, and we are standing at the edge of the precipice of the climate crisis. And we are nowhere near where we need to be in terms of addressing it. Nonetheless, no action has come. And there's no reason to believe that there will be sufficient action coming out of the Global Ambition Summit or COP 28. I think the Ambition Summit has more capacity to potentially make some initial commitments, but once we get to COP 28, which is being coordinated by and led by a fossil fuel executive in Abu Dhabi, there's just no expectation that the countries will follow through on these preliminary commitments.
As climate shocks continue to impact communities worldwide, we’re seeing a rise in climate activism. As climate-driven weather events continue to escalate in intensity and frequency, do you anticipate more people participating in climate activism?
Absolutely. My new book specifically talks about how business and government efforts to address the climate crisis are absolutely insufficient, and as a result, we're going to see more and more activism and more and more people rising up, particularly because we're going to see climate shocks coming more frequently and in a more severe way. And, as I said, research tells us that will  motivate more activism. We will just see more and more people rising up and applying pressure to their local governments, to their national governments, and globally to governments until change happens.
With an eye toward the 2024 US presidential election, do think the climate shocks we’ve seen across the United States—intense wildfires, flooding, extreme heat, hurricane devastation—will result in more voters heading to the polls with climate policy as a top issue?
We're currently in an El Niño, which means we're going to see more extreme weather because that's what commonly happens with an El Niño. 2016 was the last El Niño year, and it was also a bad year for weather in terms of climate shocks—big hurricane season, etc., and so forth. So, if that happens, as expected, yes. However, here's what's very interesting: research also tells us that people's responses to these kinds of extreme events and disasters are slow and fade quickly. And so, it's only once the disaster is so tenable and so personally experienced that people rise up and mobilize.
The question is, what will we see in November 2024? Because what happens even in September 2024 is unlikely to drive people to the polls. It needs to be tangible and recent. So, there's no question that there'll be more people going to the polls concerned about climate change, particularly young people who are already saying that climate change is one of their top voting issues, but whether or not we'll see this huge surge of climate voters versus, you know, economy voters vs. systemic racism voters vs. pro-choice voters—there are lots of issues that people are always juggling when they decide what is the main reason for them to vote and what is most motivating for them at the moment.
One of the areas of focus in  my research is to map out the constellations of motivations that are connected that mobilize people to participate in activism but also to participate in elections. And what we see is that there are overlapping issues that tend to motivate people around climate, and it tends to be climate, but also equity—and that has to do with economic equity, racial equity, as well as environmental equity. That's also connected with systemic racism. Those things together combine to the main motivations for activists to care about the climate. I would imagine that those issues will all work together to bring people out to the polls.
After seeing the impacts of climate change-driven weather in their own communities and around the world, what are some ways individuals can respond?
My new book ends with three specific points of advice for how to save ourselves. Number one is that we need to create community and real solidarity amongst those who are mobilizing and engaging in activism. A lot of activism today is less embedded in a community and more performative. A lot of the civil disobedience right now is very performative. You know, for example, you go to the US Open, take off your shoes, have Krazy Glue on your foot, and glue yourself down to be stuck there in the stands, which happened last Thursday night. It gets a lot of media attention, but that's not really connected to a community of folks who are experiencing the climate crisis, right? So, I talk about these different ways that activists mobilize and the ways they can connect more and connect more with the community. I encourage people to do that and to build solidarity across communities of color, connecting with frontline communities and workers, which is something we haven't seen as much as I would have expected at this point.
Number two is to capitalize on moral shocks, which include violence. This is something that activists who are engaging and participating in all forms of activism must deal with now. We see more and more counter-protesters in the streets as well as law enforcement being aggressive against them. This past weekend, we saw in the Netherlands that water cannons were used on peaceful activists who were just blocking a highway. So, they all were shot with water cannons. One of the things that can be done here is to make sure that the general public knows about the violence that's being used against the activists. And [in the book] I talk about lessons learned from the Civil Rights Movement, where there was a lot of violence against the activists, which helped draw more attention to their plight.
Number three: everybody who cares about the climate crisis should be thinking about how to cultivate resilience in their communities and more broadly in society. That is particularly because there's no question that we are going to continue to experience climate shocks and climate change. After all, concentrations of greenhouse gases, including CO2, continue to go up. As a result, the warming that we're feeling right now and the shocks that we're feeling right now are nothing compared to what we're going to experience before there's any chance that we'll see a change. So, everybody needs to be prepared for how they, in their communities, are going to respond. That is about not just people being engaged in activism, but also people being engaged in developing social resilience as well as environmental resilience and adaptation to extreme weather like floods, severe storms, wildfires, smoke that comes from wildfires, drought, extreme heat, etc. Those are the three main points from the book.
*Editor’s Note: Dana R. Fisher’s book, Saving Ourselves: From Climate Shocks to Climate Action, will be released in January 2024. An on-campus launch event for Fisher’s book will be held on January 17th.