Government climate report warns of worsening US disasters

This Oct. 12, 2018 aerial file photo shows devastation from Hurricane Michael over Mexico Beach, Fla. A massive new federal report warns that extreme weather disasters, like California’s wildfires and 2018’s hurricanes, are worsening in the United States. 

THE ISSUE

The federal government on Nov. 23 released a new assessment of the risks posed by climate change. It emphasized that the effects of global warming are already underway, in the form of more intense hurricanes, heat waves and wildfires (to name a few calamities). And it emphasized that climate change is only going to create greater health and financial problems for the United States moving forward. Regarding this dire analysis authored by officials from multiple federal agencies, President Donald Trump stated, “I don’t believe it.” Meanwhile, in a separate climate report released Nov. 27, the United Nations handed out failing marks for world governments. It said global greenhouse gas emissions are rising again, with “no signs of peaking,” which jeopardizes the stated goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement and the hopes of limiting the Earth’s warming in coming decades.

We’re at a turning point. In light of the overwhelming scientific evidence, we must urge our leaders to enact and support sweeping and immediate initiatives to counteract the man-made aspects of climate change. We, as individual citizens, must be examples and leaders, too. We must change our consumption habits, pivot toward renewable energy and be willing to make inconvenient adjustments to our fossil-fueled lifestyles.

We can do these things. Or we can doom our descendants, starting with those who have already been born, to a likely future of devastating hurricanes, droughts, crop disasters, food shortages, health epidemics and coastal flooding across the globe.

This challenge is daunting on its own, but additionally so because not everyone agrees about the urgency or science of climate change. Our president is not alone among the nonbelievers. Especially when it comes to the immediacy of the climate-change threat.

Although 74 percent of women and 70 percent of men, according to a Yale study, believe that climate change will prove harmful to future generations, only 48 percent of women and 42 percent of men believe that it’s a problem right now.

The federal government’s and the United Nations’ reports — both of which we should all take time to read — are designed to serve as red alerts. The federal assessment, especially, is geared toward showing that climate change is affecting our lives as we speak. In addition to the obvious natural disasters, the report cites tangible concerns like increased instances of asthma attacks and heat stroke in emergency rooms.

“Viewing climate change as a public health emergency is literally second nature,” Renee Salas, a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Wired’s Adam Rogers.

On Monday, Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale announced that his office will prepare a report on how the state is, in his words, “responding to climate change in light of a failure by national leaders to recognize and act on the issue.” He emphasized, especially for Pennsylvania and the Northeastern U.S., the threats to public health and our “aging power, water, sewer and transportation systems.” He mentioned the risks for our state’s farms, forests and rural communities. No place will be immune.

We appreciate the importance that DePasquale, Gov. Tom Wolf and others in the state are placing on climate change. But hearings, studies and documents such as the newest Pennsylvania Climate Action Plan from the state Department of Environmental Protection must be followed by strong action. Without delay.

Not a partisan issue

This isn’t news we want to hear. Some of us resist the overwhelming science of climate change, believing that adhering to scientists’ recommendations might harm the U.S. economy. But it becomes clearer and clearer that the far greater threat to our economy is doing nothing or too little to address climate change. The U.S. government assessment states our economy could lose hundreds of billions of dollars — up to 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product —  by 2100 if no action is taken.

“Beyond the obvious public safety concerns related to flooding and infrastructure damage, a changing climate will impact health, transportation, agriculture, forestry, tourism – from farms to cities, a whole host of issues,” DePasquale stated Monday. “These factors all have the potential to create new burdens on taxpayers and disrupt our economy.”

It doesn’t help that television news networks tend to treat this subject as if it were just one more partisan issue — and to book guests who are mainly concerned with its politics.

Consider former Pennsylvania senator and current cable pundit Rick Santorum, who proclaimed on CNN that climate scientists “are driven by the money that they receive.” Research scientists working outside the fossil fuel industry are not raking in piles of cash.

The truth is that scientists are not “split” on climate change. And the rhetoric that “each side has its scientists” is hobbling our ability to move forward with necessary discussions and strong legislation.

Texas Tech professor Katharine Hayhoe, one of the authors of the federal government’s climate assessments, wrote this last week in The Washington Post: “In reality, more than 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening and that humans are causing it. At least 18 scientific societies in the United States, from the American Geophysical Union to the American Medical Association, have issued official statements on climate change. And it’s been more than 50 years since U.S. scientists first raised the alarm about the dangers of climate change with the president — at the time, Lyndon B. Johnson. The public confusion has been manufactured by industry interests and ideologues to muddy the waters.”

The waters are much more than muddied. They’re rising, along all of America’s coasts.

Make it our moon shot

While we champion the rights of everyone to have their say, there are some issues on which we have an obligation to take a stand, no matter how difficult. We’re worried about the future of this land we love — and more specifically, what it might look like for our grandchildren.

To those who dispute the science of climate change, we’d ask: What do you have to lose by supporting the needed initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? If climate-change science is correct, an aggressive approach might salvage our future. And if it turns out we were just being overly alarmist (which we don’t believe is the case), the innovations needed to reshape our energy grid, infrastructure and daily lives could reap immense economic benefits and technological breakthroughs.

Think of this as America’s 21st-century moon shot.

To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, we choose to aggressively combat climate change not because it is easy, but because it is hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.

We must be unwilling to postpone our response to climate change.

Otherwise, we should start writing apology letters to our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. For what we failed to do. For what we left them.