A 10-step plan for Congress to save the climate

Climate change is not a liberal or a conservative issue. It is foremost an issue of great human tragedy with lives, homes and habitats lost to extreme heat waves, droughts, fires, floods, hurricanes, sea level rise, storm surges and coastal erosion. The number of people exposed could reach 1.5 billion in 25 years and 7 billion in 60 years.

Climate change science is driven by big data and governed by Newton’s equations of motion, quantum mechanics and a law that links heat energy with work. I know this from 46 years of research. In 1975, I joined a NASA team that launched a climate satellite. I used it to measure directly the heat trapped by atmospheric greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide.

ADVERTISEMENT

For me, personally, the denouement occurred in 2017. First were two reports in which we concluded that unchecked climate change can morph into an existential threat. The second and final blow was the announcement by the cautious American Meteorological Society, “we're experiencing new weather, because we've made a new climate”.

Science often answers questions by giving probabilities and ranges of outcomes rather than a single exact number. This should not stop Congress from enacting forceful mitigation actions to cut emissions drastically.

Congress should know that model predictions of 20th-century climate changes have been verified by thousands of scientists using massive amounts of data.

This gives scientists increasing confidence that they can model the future with narrowing bounds of uncertainty. The predictions are that, with unchecked emissions, the warming by 2100 is likely to be a catastrophic 4 degrees Celsius; with a 1-in-20 chance that it could be as low as 2.5 degrees Celsius — which is still dangerous — or as high as 6 degrees Celsius, which would pose existential threats for all.   

None of us would board a plane if it has a 1-in-20 chance of crashing. But unless we quickly change course, that’s the plane that we are committing our children and grandchildren to board.

There is still time to avoid the worst outcomes. I am very optimistic Americans will do the right thing and lead the way in solving this global problem. Let me explain why: In about 11 years, the warming will increase by 50 percent from the current 1 degree Celsius to 1.5 degrees Celsius; and with it the underlying forces that link warming with weather extremes will also intensify by 50 percent. Climate change will be in everyone’s living room and the growing public support we’re already seeing will turn into overwhelming public support for quickly bending the warming curve.

Congress needs to set the stage now for a rapid response. Here are 10 actions for the new Congress to have a major impact in slowing the warming and coping with climate/weather extremes.

1. Develop a rapid response plan to deal with weather and climate extremes, with special attention to the spread of waterborne and vector-borne diseases; mental health impacts of losing loved ones and property.

2. Develop a rapid response plan for rural farmers, in case of widespread droughts, particularly in the mid-west, the southwest and the west coast states.

3. Develop a rapid response plan to retrain the 1.1 million workers in the fossil fuels extraction industry. They can then join the 3 million Americans working in technologies related to low-carbon energy sources and energy efficiency and speed the transition to cleaner sources of energy

4. Create a bill to ban dumping food into landfills; and instead, convert the wasted food into biofuels. We throw about 40 percent of the processed food into landfills. In addition, recover methane from water treatment plants and farm manure.

5. Create a bill, to avoid fugitive methane emissions during the production and distribution of natural gas. This bill, along with solution 4, will reduce the warming from methane, the second largest global warming source.

6. Create a bill to ensure all diesel vehicles are fitted with particulate filters to eliminate emissions of black carbon, the third largest source of warming.

7. Create market incentives to replace refrigerants, HFCs, by 2030 in air conditioners and other cooling equipment, with climate neutral refrigerants, while also doubling their energy efficiencies. Solutions No. 4 to No. 7, if adopted globally, will cut the rate of warming by half before 2050.

8. Create a public-private partnership to speed the development of scalable technologies that can remove annually 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the air beginning in 2030.

9. Back in your states and districts, bring together people working in science, policy and religion into new alliances. Many religious leaders are already deeply concerned about the harm being caused to "God's creation." Such alliances will help assuage the suffering climate impacts will cause people. These alliances can provide a forum to reach out to the public directly.

10. Promote mass scale climate education of Kindergarten to college level students and the general public. The University of California, along with the California State University system, has already created a “climate solutions” course with the sole purpose of educating one million to bend the curve.

The good news is that the mitigation process has already started in a substantive way and scalable technologies for solar and wind power are mostly in place. Energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. have declined by 13 percent since 2005

ADVERTISEMENT

The city of Georgetown, Texas with a Republican mayor, is already carbon neutral — solely due to economic benefits. Texas also generates the largest share of wind-generated electricity in the U.S.

California just passed a bill committing the state to carbon free electricity in another 26 years, and, San Diego led by a Republican mayor, has committed to achieve the same target in 16 Years. Public-private partnerships at the city to the state level can keep the momentum going until overwhelming public support arrives for nationwide carbon neutrality.

Imagine an America where our children and grandchildren can live without fear of losing their lives and homes to climate and weather extremes. It is within our reach, but we must act now for the sake of our children and grandchildren and generations yet to be born.  

Veerabhadran Ramanathan is a distinguished professor of climate sciences at the University of California at San Diego and council member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican, advising Pope Francis. He is the 2018 TANG laureate for sustainability science.