Urgency of climate change

Tuesday’s policy chapter was on energy and environment policy, which is the area of policy I hope to specialize in while at the Glenn School.  The reason I decided to get a degree at the Glenn School is because I would like to help make a difference in this policy area.  But I also have a lot to learn first, and this chapter was really helpful. However, I do not think it gave enough weight to what I and many others see as the most pressing issue facing the country, and really our entire species, today: climate change.

Over the past couple of years, I have started to become increasingly concerned with climate change.  The science is clear: The planet is warming, humans are responsible, the cause is carbon being put into the atmosphere mostly from burning of fossil fuels, and if we do not drastically reduce our use of fossil fuels in the next decade or so, we are likely to tip the planet’s environment into something totally different from what human civilization evolved in.  It will likely be beyond our ability to adapt, and beyond the ability of most other species.  We will be headed to the earth’s sixth mass extinction, with our own species as endangered as the rest.

This is not hyperbole.  If anything, the scientific community has been too conservative in how they estimate and express the threat.  But it is very real.  Much of the research on climate change has been done right here at Ohio State at Byrd Polar Research Center.  This center has sent scientists all over the world to drill ice cores in glaciers and ice sheets.  Gas bubbles trapped in these cores tell us what the atmosphere was like on earth going back 800,000 years.

At no time has there ever been as much carbon in the atmosphere as there is now, and throughout this time, temperature closely tracks carbon.  In the past 150 years – a blip in geological time – carbon has shot up beyond all previous measurements.  Temperature is following and will also go beyond previous measurements if we do not stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere.

Already the planet has warmed 0.7⁰C since the Industrial Revolution, and because carbon hangs in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, we have about another degree of warming in the pipeline.  That puts us perilously close to the 2⁰C threshold that scientists have said we cannot not go beyond.  (Even that threshold seems high, given the effects we’ve seen at less than 1⁰C.)

And yet, the science is being ignored.  Just this week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued the synthesis report for its Fifth Assessment, using the strongest language yet.  Climate change is set to inflict “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts” on people and the natural world unless carbon emissions are cut sharply and rapidly, according to the report.

Yet, the reaction of the chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) was to shrug it off as “nothing new.”  The House Science Committee is full of climate change deniers who are anti-science.  They dismiss the IPCC as baseless – thousands of scientists from all over the world who put in five years going through 30,000 pieces of research in a review process that incorporated 143,000 expert comments.  All of this work was on a volunteer basis.

Climate change denial has become a litmus test for Republicans, which is terrifying.  It’s like turning gravity or e=mc2 into a political issue.  It’s not political.  It’s science.  But what has happened over the past several years is that corporations and interest groups that don’t like the ramifications of the science have spent millions of dollars to raise doubt and impugn scientists.  The most definitive study found that a staggering $1 billion a year has been spent on climate change denial, mostly in untraceable dark money from front groups whose donors are secret.

Last week saw another key event.  A recording was leaked of a presentation by a particularly notorious front group king pin named Richard Berman at a conference of the oil and gas industry.  Berman was caught on tape telling corporations like BP, Anadarko Petroleum, Devon Energy, and others that they have to wage “endless war” by digging up dirt on environmentalists.  “You can win ugly or lose pretty,” Berman said, adding that they could donate $3 million to his front group attacking environmental groups, and he would keep their payments absolutely secret.

I personally am so happy to see Berman’s chicanery exposed to the world.  For years he has been running front groups paid with dark money to attack animal welfare groups, teachers unions, MADD, the CDC and the EPA, among others.  He has dozens of front groups, all run as nonprofits that funnel “donations” to his personal PR firm.  It’s a shady business that has made him millions, and is shockingly legal in this country.

The exposure of Berman marks a turning point in the climate wars.  No longer do we need to continue dealing with front group attacks on climate science.  Climate denial is no longer a tenable position, regardless of what Republicans think.  The problem is real, and dealing with it has been delayed for so long that it’s now extremely urgent.  There is a legitimate debate on what to do about climate change, but there is no more legitimate debate over whether it is happening.

Fortunately, a whole bevy of solutions are available and in the works.  Renewable energy is more affordable than ever.  The cost of solar has fallen from $76.67 per watt in 1977 to $0.74 per watt in 2013.  Research and development is underway for better battery storage and projects like solar roadways and solar panels that can act as windows.  Hybrid and electric vehicles are becoming common place.  Not every development will pan out, but a lot of them will, and none too soon.

Unfortunately the fossil fuels companies are not on board.  Scientists have calculated that in order to stay below the 2⁰C threshold for warming the planet (again this is high), the carbon budget for humans to burn from 2000 to 2050 is 886 Gigatons.  But from 2000 to 2010, we already used 321 Gt, leaving us a maximum of 565 Gt for the rest of the century.

Yet the fossil fuel companies have identified and made plans to extract and burn 2,795/Gt of carbon, worth $27 trillion dollars.  That is five time more than the allowable amount to keep a semi-livable planet.  And they are spending lots of money to extract increasingly extreme forms of fossil fuels such as tar sands, deep sea drilling, mountaintop removal mining, and fracking.  The fact is, if humanity is to survive beyond the next couple of generations, most of that carbon must be left in the ground.

The next 10 to 15 years are going to be a critical time for our country and for the world.  Time will tell if we can make the enormous switch from fossil fuels to renewables.  It is a switch often compared to the civil war years when so much of the country’s physical labor was performed by slaves.  One way we ended slavery was by switching to fossil fuels, and now we need to take the next step to renewables.  I want to spend the second half of my life helping to make that happen.

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