During this long, trying election season you seldom heard about a looming issue that deeply affects every single one of us: climate change.
The frightening truth, all rhetoric aside, is that climate change is a scientific fact; the Earth is warming at a faster rate than ever before and humans have played a major role in the change. The rise in temperature corresponds very closely with a global surge in carbon dioxide emissions that began in the Industrial Revolution. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory, atmospheric CO2 is nearly 40% higher now than it was in the late 1800′s.
The numbers are sobering; carbon dioxide emissions doubled between 1900 and 1950 and quadrupled between 1950 and 2000. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, human activity releases nearly 20 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. The rise in Earth’s temperature has increased along with our carbon emissions in accelerating numbers since 1970.
The evidence that climate change is real and that humans have caused it is overwhelming. It is a fundamentally different situation from prior natural changes to our planet’s climate.
Climate change is not just global warming, some regions are experiencing very unusual weather patterns. This phenomenon will affect disparate parts of the world differently. Ice is melting in the arctic at a much higher rate than the 2007 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted, affecting weather patterns across the entire northern hemisphere. Poor countries with weak governance structures, particularly in Africa and Asia, will have an especially difficult time coping with increased floods, drought, and wildfires. Furthermore, many unstable countries, such as Yemen, are facing critical water shortages that could spark serious conflict.
Climate change makes weather less predictable and more extreme. The last several years have seen unprecedented levels of drought (including in the U.S.), extreme flooding, crop failures and water shortages. This can have massive and unpredictable affect on global politics.
In the summer of 2010, record heat coincided with record drought in Russia, and the resulting wildfires ravaged the country from July to September. By the time the fires were out, nearly 55,000 Russians had died. The smoke was so thick and wide ranging it blanketed Moscow. Crops failed, which prompted the Russian government to halt food exports and sparked a global spike in food costs.
These higher food prices contributed substantially to the 2011 Arab Spring protests, in country after country, the high cost of food was an underlying factor in following years of regime-shattering protests.
Climate change will also affect domestic politics. Hurricane Sandy, which recently ravaged parts of the Atlantic coast, was as horrific as it was, in part, because of climate change. An emerging consensus of scientists agrees that climate change affected both the intensity of the storm and the unique track, which featured an unprecedented westward turn towards New York harbor and the Jersey shore. The effects of climate change made Sandy so vast and so devastating. Meteorologist Dan Satterfield described for the American Geophysical Union that an identical storm in a world without climate change “would have been less wet with a storm surge that was lower.” Meaning climate change is a major reason why Hurricane Sandy was so devastating.
The U.S. faces two choices. It can do nothing, and assume future generations of leaders will figure a way to cope with the unpredictability. Or the U.S. can try to plan for the future, building resiliency and redundancy into its infrastructure, and try to soften the effects of global climate shifts.
One way we can see this change playing out is the role of the military. After natural disasters, the National Guard is often mobilized to provide aid, rescue, and other forms of humanitarian assistance to affected areas. Right now, these domestic deployments are thankfully rare. But in the future they will happen more and more often. But what does it mean for our national security if the military takes on disaster relief as a major mission role?
Similarly, infrastructure needs to be hardened and made more resistant to damage. Sandy knocked out power over such a wide area that the area is still reeling from a fuel shortage (you can’t pump gas without electricity). Over this summer, the DC area experienced days without power, phones, or emergency services after a derecho destroyed a few key nodes of the power grid and telephone system. More effective disaster preparedness and more redundant networks might ease the damage caused by extreme weather.
There are some proposed policies that could mitigate climate change in the long run. Market-based “cap and trade” programs, which set a limit on the amount of carbon that can be emitted nationwide and allow companies to trade their carbon credits, might be able to harness the power and responsiveness of the market to limit carbon emissions, as well. A tax on carbon emissions might likewise provide an incentive for companies to reduce their emissions over time.
Right now, however, there is almost no movement on climate change issues. No one seems to want to talk about it much. If we are to have any hope of being ready for the next disaster, we have to start working on it now.