Mounting evidence demands action to combat causes of climate change

Politicians are famously reluctant to make commitments — especially about the future, as Yogi might say.

Not facing up to the way humans are changing our climate is one of the most dramatic and costly examples of this reluctance. 

It is easy to find excuses for not confronting a problem like climate change. There is too much uncertainty about the science, we say to ourselves —maybe humans are not causing the problem. Or maybe there is nothing humans, or one nation, or one legislature, can do about it. Or maybe action would be too costly. All of these are not explanations for our inaction, but simply excuses to justify our natural reluctance to commit.

For the scientists who look at the problem — and yes, almost all such scientists agree — none of these excuses hold up. Of course there is uncertainty; in science, there always is. Every scientific finding, not only in climate science, is provisional, pending further evidence, but that is not cause for inaction.

As more and more evidence is compiled, the truth becomes more and more clear. We are seeing storms and superstorms, droughts and glacial melting, heat waves and sea level rises, barges running aground on the Mississippi and wildfires raging — hundreds and hundreds of phenomena totally consistent with the models and predictions of what results from humans throwing billions of tons of carbon into the air, as well as totally inconsistent with other explanations, like naturally occurring cycles or solar variations or volcanic eruptions or some such thing.

If we listen to the scientists, we will share in their alarm that many of these phenomena are turning out to be on the more severe side of the expected range. Glaciers are melting faster, and some of the moderating feedbacks on our oceans and atmosphere are having a smaller effect. Furthermore, scientists say, not only is climate change real and caused primarily by human actions, but the cost of inaction in lives and dollars is very likely to exceed the cost of action. 

Almost a decade ago, two scientists from New Jersey, Rob Socolow and Steve Pacala, presented a way of thinking about the problem intended to help deal with it. Let’s look at specific steps, using current knowledge and technology, that humans (and policymakers) could take, each step saving 25 billion tons in emissions from being released over the next 50 years compared to a “business as usual” scenario. They suggested calling these bunches of carbon “wedges” because each step could be visualized as a wedge cut out of a graph of growing carbon in the air. Each of these steps would be challenging but achievable without technological breakthroughs. With maybe 10 such wedges, the climate could be stabilized and climate runaway could be avoided.

Wedges consist of such things as doubling vehicle fuel efficiency, stopping large deforestation, improving the efficiency of heating and cooling buildings by 25 percent, replacing or retrofitting coal-fired power plants so they double efficiency, and increasing electricity generation with wind by a factor of 25 or so from the level of a decade ago. A menu of wedges, picked and chosen depending on what various countries could do and what the projected cost would be, made the problem seem tractable. 

Some of us thought then that we could get to work: that the wedge visualization made the problem less daunting, and that lawmakers would all see not just the costs of implementing the wedges but also the economic, societal, and technological benefits. Alas, years have passed, and denial and inaction have prevailed.

The problem is worsening, not only because inaction has carried the world further up the “business as usual” graph but also because further refinement of the data and the models shows that dangerous, deadly effects of our pollution are greater than we hoped a decade ago. 

No deliberate action has been taken. Some benefit has been gained from the surge in production of natural gas that has displaced some coal in generation of electricity. Although that benefit is incidental — and accidental, from a policy point of view — climate scientists nevertheless welcome it. However, the world finds itself now in need, not of 10 or 12 remedial wedges, as scientists thought a decade ago, but probably 20 or more.

It is time to stop making excuses for our reluctance to commit.

Holt is a member of the House Natural Resources Committee.