Climate crisis and the will to act

In the past month, the U.S. has faced two grave threats, one domestic and one international. Both pose serious consequences to the United States and the world at large, and no one knows how either will end.

The national funding and debt debate caused a shutdown of the world’s most powerful government and threatens the full faith and credit of the United States, with economic repercussions felt both here at home and abroad.

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The crisis in the Middle East, from the possible intervention in Syria to Egyptian instability, to recent nuclear talks with Iran, has swung from gut wrenching to nerve wracking to hopeful and back again.

Total uncertainty clouds both situations with the most serious of consequences.

But we face a third threat on both the domestic and international front that is just as grave if not more so. However, depending on our actions, the outcome is much more certain. This threat, which did not garner the attention it deserved from most media outlets, puts the aforementioned financial and military security issues in stark perspective.

Here is what is at stake:

The international scientific community, within the auspices of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released a report this month putting our shared concerns in the clearest of terms: 2,200 pages worth of scientific consensus, in fact, and as certain as science can get.

Specifically, the IPCC report noted that the last 30 years were the warmest the Northern Hemisphere has witnessed in a millennium and a half. Each of these last three decades, furthermore, has become progressively and successively hotter. In short, we’re on an untenable trajectory. Given growth trends of emerging economies and population growth forecasts, a greener way forward is critical.

If this isn’t news to readers, given the consistent and constant scientific drumbeat on climate change, there is a new piece of information worth highlighting from the report: Since 1950, humans have been the dominant cause of global warming. No longer are we a partial player; we’re now the majority contributor.

The security implications are paramount. Take sea-level rises, which will cause increased instability due to flooding, migration and accompanying health and environmental concerns. Expect to see the sea level rise more, between 10 and 32 inches, by the end of the century.

That means vulnerable communities along shorelines across the globe, from New Orleans to Bangladesh, will face increasing insecurity and instability thanks to melting Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, shrinking glaciers and disappearing Arctic sea ice.

What is most remarkable about this report, however, is that the reliability of climate science is even sounder than before. We’re dealing with 95 percent certainty now. And as the voices of climate skeptics wane, the American public continues to exhibit overwhelming concern with global warming and want their elected officials to do something about it. Dissenters are now solidly, permanently the outliers, which is a good thing because we’ll need the nation on board for any policy to prevent further warming.

Going forward, we must rethink the way we consume. Thankfully, economic, security, religious and humanitarian arguments have emerged to champion living with a light energy footprint. Companies utilizing energy efficiency, conservation and renewable energy alternatives are finding significant financial benefits from going green. The concept of energy security is also commonplace, as people understand that a reliance on foreign oil from countries considered adversarial leaves us vulnerable to petro-politics and volatile markets. Religious and humanitarian arguments for going green are also equally compelling. Scriptures call for environmental stewardship, and natural disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy, call for compassionate action.

We must all work together to lend a hand in helping Americans transform our energy appetite. Americans make up 5 percent of the world’s population yet consume roughly 25 percent of its energy. The standard American lifestyle, soon to be matched by India, China and others, cannot be met by the natural resources from this Earth alone.

Whether it involves using public transit, opting for less energy intensive diets, buying local or one of a myriad of other energy efficient solutions, this effort must be culturally acceptable and affordable in order for energy-light living to be perceived as patriotic, as a civic duty taken for the good of this country. Taking a lesson from the Japanese, whose economy remains strong, their “Cool Biz” and “Warm Biz” campaigns, supported by their public and private sectors, are changing culture tenability for the benefit of climate sustainability.

Beyond public engagement, public policy has an important role to play.  While we must enhance America’s capacity to respond to climate change — which is why increased coordination among federal, state and local authorities on the adaptation front is so critical — there is still work to be done in reducing carbon emissions.  Many reports have delineated suggestions for the road ahead.  Among the recommendations worth noting: a national green bank, the restructuring of energy incentives, and new regulations to ensure that we do not continue to pass along the negative externalities associated with fossil fuel extraction to the public. Once the costs of the pollution are internalized by the people causing them, renewable energy will be able to compete on a fairer playing field.

All of these problems — whether it is the federal budget crisis, the Middle East crisis, or the climate crisis — are enormous and deadly serious, but none of them are insurmountable.  The difference with the climate crisis is we know how to solve this problem. If only we could summon the will to act.


Cartwright is a freshman representative serving Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District. He sits on the on the Oversight and Government Reform, and the Natural Resources committees. Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.