July was so hot it convinced Republicans climate change is real — but they’re still getting it wrong

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We learned last week that July 2021 was the hottest month in 142 years of measurements.

That remarkable news came a few days after the stunning revelation by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that literally every nation on Earth now agrees, “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”

I refer to that news as “stunning” because it means Russia, Kuwait and even Saudi Arabia have finally capitulated to science and can no longer deny, as they had previously, (with support and encouragement from the former Trump administration) that “greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.”

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, ironically, are countries that are most likely to suffer as the world heats up.

In an opinion earlier this summer, I discussed the role of deforestation and global warming in weakening carbon uptake and storage by terrestrial ecosystems. Let there be little doubt, the global decline of lands stems from the consumption habits of wealthy nations, along with drought, flooding and heat caused by global warming. We have collectively failed to engage with nature sustainably, to the extent that our demands far exceed its capacity to supply us with the goods and services we all rely on. Losing nature puts our socio-economic systems at risk and amplifies the social inequality characterizing human communities.

We borrowed Planet Earth from our children and were poor stewards. For future generations to thrive as we have, it is critical that we transform an economy that for over 100 years has depended on fossil fuels, land clearing and indiscriminate waste disposal.

Climate change is accelerating, but It is still possible to arrest global warming at the U.N. target of 1.5 degrees Celsius with the elimination of greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century. This requires government policies that promote:

Without bold and transformative action in these sectors, we not only risk out-of-control climate change, but also the very resources that provide life.

How will this play out? The world looks to the U.S., and the U.S. looks to Washington.

President Biden has clearly defined plans that aggressively cut emissions while promoting sustainable economic development. What about the Republicans, who appear to be the last political sector on the planet to deny the existence of climate change? As of March, 139 elected officials to Congress, all Republican, refused to acknowledge the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change. Why would they do that? Studies show, “the more a given member of Congress votes against environmental policies, the more contributions they receive from oil and gas companies supporting their reelection.”

It shouldn’t shock you to learn that climate deniers in Congress have received more than $61 million in lifetime contributions from the coal, oil and gas industries. Yes, the same industry that engaged in a decades-long campaign of public deception designed to confuse the American voter, and deny them the right to be accurately informed about climate change.

Mind you, now unable to deny the severe weather of the past two months, Republicans have capitulated on the subject of climate change. Willing to admit that Earth is heating because of fossil fuel emissions, in a twist that maintains the interests of their donors, Republicans are now claiming that quickly switching to clean energy will damage the economy.

Almost unbelievably, many members of Congress believe that that we need to continue using fossil fuels. Instead of moving rapidly to cut emissions, a majority of Republican lawmakers argue for planting trees, carbon capture and storage, as well as expanding nuclear energy.

Let’s take these proposals one by one.

1) Planting trees: Is it possible to reduce the severity of climate change by planting billions of trees to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere? Studies show that planting trees isn’t enough to solve the climate challenge. Although Earth could support more forested area than we have now, large-scale deforestation, habitat loss, drought and wildfire have degraded tropical forest sequestration in recent years. Ninety percent of the carbon that forests absorb is offset by carbon released by disturbances: deforestation, fire, drought and tree mortality.

These conditions, combined with widespread deforestation, have likely turned the Amazon Basin into a net source of greenhouse gas emissions, with much of the remaining tropical rainforest on Earth trending the same direction.

2) Carbon Capture: Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a vital weapon in the battle against climate change. If we fail to set up ways to trap carbon dioxide and store it underground, it will likely be impossible to hold net emissions below zero by 2050.

However, the pathway to stop warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius requires a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. CCS is far from ready to take the stage as a global solution.

Carbon capture and storage takes many forms: farmers can manage soil to trap and store carbon dioxide; technology makes it possible to capture carbon dioxide in power plants, steel refineries and cement factories, transport it through pipelines, and deposit it underground; direct air capture of carbon dioxide can lead to commercial applications as well as storage; and protecting and enhancing photosynthetic communities can store carbon with numerous co-benefits. Although CCS technology is not new, development has not progressed rapidly and there is no deployment at scale, the costs are significant, and the low cost of oil hinders CCS implementation.

3) Nuclear power: According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the cost of nuclear power is twice that of wind or solar. Besides being more expensive than clean energy, studies show that “nuclear power’s contribution to climate change mitigation is, and will be, very limited.”

Currently, nuclear power avoids only 2 to 3 percent of total global GHG emissions per year. According to current planning, this value will decrease until 2040. A substantial expansion of nuclear power will not be possible.

So, America, what will it be? Planting trees, carbon capture and nuclear power will not solve climate change by themselves. They must be linked with clean, affordable renewable energy captured from the sun, the wind and running water.

We have a choice. Unless they show a change of heart, Republicans will continue to block meaningful progress on climate change with sincere sounding — but ultimately false —arguments.

Handouts from the fossil fuel industry will to see to that. Alternatively, the Biden administration has assembled a scientifically valid approach to protect nature which is centered on jobs programs to transform America to a clean economy.

Perhaps we should take guidance, again, from the IPCC report: With every additional increment of global warming, extreme weather will grow more frequent and more intense. Many changes due to past and future greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries if not millennia to come. Limiting human-induced global warming requires limiting cumulative CO2 emissions. Global warming of 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions begin immediately and accelerate in the remaining years of this decade.

Chip Fletcher is associate dean for Academic Affairs at the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. He is the author of “Climate Change: What the Science Tells Us,” 2nd Edition, a textbook on climate change published by Wiley.

Tags Chip Fletcher Climate change Environment Fossil fuels Global warming IPCC Joe Biden oil and gas Republican
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