Climate change is no longer a future problem

For years, climate change has been discussed in the context of tomorrow — a problem for future generations — with specific impacts left largely to the imagination. This may be changing now as apocalyptic climate-related disasters awaken the public to the realities that come with a warmer planet.

We need only look a couple weeks back when California made headlines from wildfires that yet again set new state records, or to just six weeks ago when Hurricane Michael became the largest hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle. Let’s not forget the back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes that destroyed parts of Florida and Puerto Rico just a year ago, or Hurricane Harvey which left Houston underwater for days.

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These realities were made clear in a critically important climate report was quietly released by the Trump administration, drafted by 13 Federal agencies and departments. The Fourth National Climate Assessment warned of catastrophic climate impacts likely to cost “hundreds of billions of dollars” to the U.S. economy. This dire report came only six weeks after the United Nations issued a 2018 Special Report which essentially described a 12-year timeline of action before we cross a dangerous threshold that would lead to substantially escalated catastrophe.

“Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities,” the new climate report states.

Importantly, the destabilization of our climate means different things to different regions and industries. To coastal communities, sea level rise caused by warming oceans and melting glaciers will increase the “frequency and extent of high-tide flooding,” in turn threatening the trillion-dollar property market and public infrastructure along the coastlines. Eventually, retreat from certain coastal areas will become an “unavoidable option,” warns the climate assessment. Coastlines consist of not only fancy homes, but also infrastructure essential to energy supplies and access to goods and services from overseas trade. Damage to coastlines will, in turn, have cascading impacts on the nation.

Meanwhile, for agriculture, yields from major U.S. crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton are expected to decline due to higher temperatures, changes in water availability and soil erosion. Farmers across the country are already reporting such impacts. Importantly, domestic crop failure affects not only our farmers but food security and American exports.

Many areas dependent on snow for wintertime recreation are also projected to suffer economic losses as future warming continues. We saw this last winter as many ski resorts in Colorado experienced half their usual snowpack.

Additionally, earlier springs will mean earlier snowmelt and reduced summertime river flow, placing added stress on already water-stressed cities and ecosystems. According to the new climate report, mid-elevation conifer forests have seen a doubling in tree death from 1955 to 2007.

Reduced precipitation, hotter temperatures, and more dead trees, of course, all play into the frequency of wildfires. Experts estimate that about half the area burned by wildfires over the last 30 years across the West can be attributed to climate change, costing states billions of dollars in added damage. These issues are only projected to worsen under a business-as-usual global warming scenario.

In the international context, climate instability is already putting our nation at increased risk as it relates to overseas operations of U.S. businesses, due to the “disruption of international supply chains” and “shifts in the availability and prices of commodities.” The climate report cites the extreme flooding in Thailand as an example, which disrupted the supply chains for U.S. electronics manufacturers back in 2011.

So, what’s our path forward? While climate adaptation strategies are a must, such strategies alone are not enough. The burning of fossil fuels for energy still accounts for over 80 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, which is exacerbating the climate crisis.

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Thus, if we want to address climate change, we’ve got to address energy. We must divorce ourselves from the outdated tradition of offering massive government subsidies to the coal, oil, and gas industries at the long-term expense of the public. We, of course, cannot abandon fossil fuels overnight, but we can and must lay the legislative foundation to reduce our dependence on such resources and in turn reduce carbon emissions. And we must do so quickly. Solar, wind, and other renewable energy technologies are widely available and ready to be constructed and deployed.

Addressing global warming comes with major co-benefits that are worth celebrating, such as improved air quality and public health, reduced crop damage from ozone pollution, and greater energy independence and security as we rely increasingly on domestic energy resources. With the expansion of renewables, there is also massive job growth waiting to be had.

The problem of climate change is not one of technological innovation, but one of prioritization and political will. Groups such as the Citizens’ Climate Lobby and Climate Leadership Council have been working hard to get Congress to put a price on greenhouse gas emissions.

We’re one step closer to that goal with the “Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act,” House members just proposed the first bipartisan carbon tax bill in nearly a decade. Unlike typical tax bills, this creative piece of legislation would tax the big polluters with the added benefit of returning the revenue to the public as a regular dividend. Whether or not the bill makes it into law remains to be seen.

To pass, it will take more than public support, but the committed expression of that support to members of Congress nationwide — writing letters, placing phone calls, and meeting in person with representatives. Congress must hear from the people. It’s how our democracy works, and how climate policy will succeed.

Shahir Masri is the author of "Beyond Debate: Answers to 50 Misconceptions on Climate Change." He is an air pollution scientist at the University of California at Irvine, and also teaches at Chapman University. Masri recently launched “On the Road for Climate Action,” a public outreach project to communicate the crucial message of climate science and solutions in over 35 different states. Follow him on Twitter at @shahirmasri.