Commentary: Wrapping our heads around multidimensional change in income and global warming

Special to McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 9, 2012 

The US election now largely focuses on two central issues: the economy - by which most mean unemployment - and social issues - in particular abortion and gay rights. Somewhat surprisingly, two recently contentious issues - income distribution and climate change - remain on the sidelines.

When the "Occupy Wall Street" movement went national (hitting hard in places like Oakland, CA) and viral (becoming a social media phenomena), income and the plight of the 99% versus the 1% were front page news. Similarly, few new policies generated as much venom as "Cap and Trade" - the policy to provide incentives for cutting emissions.

Why have these two previously highly visible issues fallen by the wayside?

One might look at the elemental importance of jobs - few factors have as large a quality of life or psychological impact as losing one's employment - but unemployment has decreased since the occupy movement emerged. One might point to the long, hot summer for muting opposition to global warming, yet the Republican platform's repudiation of cap and trade has received little if any reaction. There is, however, a common aspect to both the income and climate issues that has received little attention.

Both topics deal with multidimensional change, making them hard to understand and capture in a sound bite - rendering them less tractable for politicians, pundits and the media than issues like unemployment and abortion.

Since December 2007, American median household income has fallen by almost 8 percent. At the same time, 93% of the gains from the economic recovery have gone to those with incomes in the top 1 percent. As a result of the tremendous income of a tiny percentage of the population, the median household income ($46,000) is dramatically less than the average income ($79,000). In other words, despite people losing their jobs and have no or very low income, the tremendous earnings of the wealthiest Americans still pulls up the entire national average (making the average substantially greater than the median). Thus income can change along two dimensions -median income is shifting lower (especially over the last five years) while over the last twenty-five years the income distribution - the gap between the top 1% and everyone else - has grown greatly.

The summer of 2012 was brutally hot with drought conditions felt throughout an enormous section of the American heartland. Given these scorching conditions, it is hard to imagine anyone challenging the basic tenants of global warming - the argument that human-created pollution creates greenhouse-like conditions that heats the planet. Views on global warming might alter drastically this winter however, should we experience an unusually cold snap. What many do not understand, however, is that a frigid winter, would be further evidence for global warming.

How can this be?

Like income, global warming (or more appropriately "global climate change") anticipates variation along two dimensions. First, overall temperatures are increasing. Since 1900, the average annual global temperature has increased by 2.5 degrees and the rate of warming has increased almost five times since 1979. But global climate change also predicts an increase in annual temperature variation - that is, the frequency of extreme weather will increase with more super-hot summers and more extremely cold winters. Thus, a record-setting hot summer and record-setting cold winter are both consistent with global climate change.

Over the last 25 years, U.S. median income has stagnated and recently decreased, while the gap between rich and poor has increased. Over the same time the average annual temperature has increased, while temperature variation has widened. In each case change occurs in two ways - the mean has shifted and the range has widened. These type of dual movements occur frequently (for example the Republican Party moved to the right and the spectrum of Republican positions has become more extreme).

Although contexts like global warming and income that involve multidimensional change are harder to understand and transform into electoral sound bites, we cannot let the complexity of these issues deter us from addressing them. It is vital that scholars, politicians, pundits, media and citizens engage these critical issues in their full complexity and help us all develop an intuitive understanding of the implications of multidimensional change.


Scott Sigmund Gartner is a Professor of International Affairs and Affiliate Professor of Law at Penn State. He can be reached by email at More information about Dr. Gartner is available at Copyright 2015 McClatchy_Newspapers. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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