If you follow the news coming from climate science, you get the impression that global warming will be the culprit behind all of the undesirable changes in our lives. Ice is melting; seas are rising; floods are epic; animals are migrating when they are not disappearing altogether; hurricanes are historic; lightning strikes are more frequent; wildfires have never been so intense; trees are confused about when to bud; mosquitoes and their diseases are invading new places; and the swallows aren’t sure when to return to Capistrano. Global warming, it seems, is behind everything with the possible exception of male-pattern baldness, however, that the list of actual impacts is long and diverse because the weather touches nearly everything in one way or another. And while we hear mostly about the big fires, storms and droughts, many of the changes are subtler. They have graduated from the realm of computer models and have entered our personal lives.
Here is an exercise. Close your eyes for a minute and conjure up the most beautiful time you’ve ever spent outside. It might be a day in the spring, when the temperature was perfect and the warmth of the sun gave you a wonderful sense of well-being. Or it might be a summer day when you were standing up to your thighs in a cool stream, casting your fly line into the riffles and waiting for the rush of a strike. For some of us, it will be in the fall when the leaves are artist pallets and those that have fallen rustle along the ground on a light breeze. Or the winter when kids on sleds are cutting paths down neighborhood slopes, or you on your skis are challenging a mountain side in virgin Champaign snow.
Now imagine living in a time when these moments are rare or never. The weather is moody and violent. Farm fields are parched rather than abundant with the season’s crops. Heat is so intense that being outside is deadly. There are no homes with ocean views because living with sea level rise and violent storms is too dangerous. Forests and fields are tinder boxes. Rainbow trout have disappeared from the streams of the South and Midwest because the water is too warm for them to survive. These are among the less spectacular, but soul-starving consequences of climate change.
It boggles the mind that the unnatural end has come to 10,000 years of weather ideal for humankind. Thousands of years of human activity have depleted soils, cut down forests, filled wetlands, overgrazed grasslands and stolen the habitat of species, driving them into extinction. By burning fossil fuels for the last 250 years or so, the 8% of the world’s people living in industrialized nations has made the human footprint much larger than the biosphere can accommodate without changing the natural order. This sliver of civilization, if we can call it that, has ended the Holocene early and brought us to an age of consequences.
The largest of the industrial economies and the largest source of the CO2 in the atmosphere today is the United States, whose current president and a sufficient number in Congress refuse to acknowledge or to do anything about climate change. In fact, they intend to make the U.S. the world’s largest producer of fossil fuels, a course that would so aggravate the climate that some scientists predict we will not be able to adapt to it.
We have to ask: How many more elections will pass, how many more legislatures and congresses convened, and how many more presidents will we send to the White House before we have leaders who will help us transition to a zero-carbon energy economy?
Some of our national leaders chafe against immigration while ignoring projections that as many as 6.7 million climate refugees will breach our southern border to survive drought-induced food shortages. We worry about food prices while prolonging energy policies that will parch our own farmlands. The sunlight and wind around us can provide far more than all of the carbon-free energy we need, but our leaders encourage more drilling and digging to extract and burn the carbon that nature wisely sequestered underground millions of years ago. Meantime, we are spending billions of dollars trying to bury the carbon again.
There is no longer any excuse for a political candidate or incumbent office-holder to doubt global warming or the need to address it. Climate change has arrived. A recent survey shows that four of every 10 Americans say they have been personally affected by the impacts of global warming. Half of the American people believe they’ll be affected in the future. Seven out of 10 Americans including majorities in every state wanted the United States to remain in the Paris climate agreement. More than 85% support the expansion of wind and solar energy – exactly the opposite of the direction Congress and Donald Trump are taking us.
Nevertheless, the official position of the Republican Party, which currently controls the national government, is to ignore climate change even though “red” states are being hit hardest with billion-dollar disasters. Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas in August; Florida was raked by Hurricane Irma in September; Southeastern states froze in March; Missouri and Arkansas suffered flooding in April and May; Montana and the Dakotas experienced drought in the spring and fall. Writing in the journal Science, analysts from several prestigious institutions predict that Southern states, most of them considered Republican, will suffer the biggest economic losses from climate-related disasters in the years ahead.
Climate skeptics can no longer hide behind the excuse that no single weather disaster can be blamed on global warming. A rapidly emerging discipline called Probabilistic Event Attribution, or “Attribution Science” for short, now allows scientists to determine whether climate change is a factor in specific weather events.
Clean energy and climate action cannot be dismissed as job-killers any more. Solar and wind power are the nation’s most robust job creators. More than 30 U.S. states have demonstrated that carbon emissions can be “decoupled” from economic growth. In other words, GDP can grow while carbon emissions don’t.
The advocates of doing something cannot be dismissed as fear-mongers on the fringe of rationality. The World Economic Forum – the Geneva based nonprofit that promotes public/private cooperation – has just issued its 2018 Global Risks Report, based on assessments by nearly 1,000 experts and decision makers around the world. Extreme weather events ranked first on the list of most likely risks over the next 10 years. Natural disasters ranked second, and the failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation measures ranked fifth.
Nine short months from now, voters will decide who fills 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; 33 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate; and more than 6,000 seats in state legislatures. Voters will choose attorneys general in 30 states and governors in 36 states. Governors in 38 states will appoint more than 200 utility regulators to oversee electric rates and renewable energy policies. Voters will elect utility regulators in 11 other states. Hundreds of mayors will be chosen, as well as city council members.
So here is the deal: Every voter this year should insist that every candidate address what he or she will do to confront climate change. The political parties should not support, and voters should not elect any candidate who still denies climate change or doesn’t have specific ideas on what to do about it.
What should those ideas include? At the national level, Congress should assign a price to carbon or pass legislation that restores and codifies the climate action plan that President Obama created. Congress should pass legislation requiring the United States to rejoin and participate actively in the Paris climate agreement. And after a century of using taxpayer money to subsidize fossil energy production, Congress should phase out those subsidies rapidly.
In the rest of the nation, voters should elect people who make it possible for state and cities to keep their promise of helping the U.S. meet its moral obligation under the Paris agreement.
It is almost too late. Nature already is giving us a bitter taste of what global warming will mean. It already is costing lives and unsupportable financial losses to families, local governments and the national economy. It is threatening the coastal areas where most Americans live. It is straining, and in some cases destroying, our infrastructure. By delaying our inevitable transition to clean renewable fuels, Congress is suppressing job growth. And those perfect days in our lives are becoming rarer. All of this will get infinitely worse if we allow climate change to become irreversible.
Voting Democrat or Republican has become less important now than voting for candidates who are committed to climate action. This year and 2020 must be America’s historic first climate elections.