In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama said: "No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change." Yet worsening climate data prove we're not doing enough. Why do we delay action?
People are daunted by the gradual nature, incomprehensible consequences and global scope of the problem. No siren blares: "Act Now!" as the problem gradually snowballs. We respond to sudden, "bite-sized" disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis. But, we leave a major cause of these events, climate change, unaddressed. This is partly because future scenarios -- for example, our world after four feet of sea level rise -- boggle our minds.
Many countries responsible for creating the global problem refuse to act unless others act, stymying efforts to reach agreement, while the situation grows increasingly dire. The United States' historical lack of leadership at global climate talks is particularly galling in light of U.S. cumulative greenhouse gas emissions that exceed those of any other country. American commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which CNN news characterizes as "intermittent," may have changed in recent years, and especially with last November's historic emissions deal between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Many people blindly hope scientists are wrong about the climate, or that we can afford to wait to act until we know more. The variable nature of climate makes it hard to squarely blame any event -- such as a hurricane -- on climate change, creating uncertainty.
Mixed messages compound the uncertainty. The climate issue has become politicized, with Democrats generally concerned, and Republicans, at least until recently, generally unconcerned. Senator James Inhofe, now head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, declared climate change to be the greatest hoax played on mankind. Last month, the Republican-controlled Senate acknowledged that climate change is real, but refused to say the cause, or that humans are to blame. In perhaps more encouraging news, a recent poll of the American public found that half of Republicans now support government action to curb global warming.
Further stalling efforts to address the environmental problem, powerful special interests use their clout to preserve the status quo. For example, timber industry lobbying has ramped up in recent years. The wood-pellet industry is pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ignore scientific data and write regulations, as if carbon dioxide emissions from wood-burning electrical biomass plants didn't harm the climate. When citizens see that their representatives work for special interests instead of the public good, their confidence in government erodes. They stop telling their representatives what to do, which only makes it easier for their representatives to work for special interests in a deepening, downward moral and environmental spiral. As political economist Robert Reich explains:
Many people have become deeply cynical about politics... If we give up on politics, we give up on our democracy. And if we give up on democracy, we don't stand a chance. That's what the moneyed interests want... Then they run everything, and they get everything.
Even if we acknowledge that we have a climate problem, we're confused about what to do about it. While feasible, cost-effective remedies stand at the ready, some people warn that fixing the climate will hurt the economy. Still, others bet wildly on unproven, quick-fix technologies -- such as blasting particles into the atmosphere to cool the planet.
Many people -- frazzled by information overload, and consumed with other problems in the world and in their personal lives -- have done little or nothing about climate change. Yet, growing numbers are taking and demanding action. Millions made a ruckus in the massive People's Climate March last September, which included thousands of rallies in 162 countries. Young people in the U.S. are suing states and the federal government, based on the doctrine of public trust, for not protecting the climate.
If we care about the Earth's people and other species, we'll demand that our public servants at all levels of government fix the problem. Politicians will comply if they understand they will lose their constituents' votes otherwise. My local area, the City Council of Springfield, Massachusetts, unanimously voted last October to develop a Climate Action Plan, thanks to citizen pressure. On the international level, the U.S. will take bold action at the pivotal United Nations Climate Change Conference this December -- if enough Americans insist.
With its global scale, complexity, potentially epic consequences and creeping progression, climate change poses the ultimate test for the human species. This test could be pass-fail, threatening the human species with extinction, according to some experts. Will humans adapt quickly enough and muster the necessary intelligence, will, caring and survival instinct to meet the challenge?
Blogger Brad Friedman's "Better World for Nothing" cartoon depicts a person making a presentation at a climate summit. On a large screen viewed by the summit audience is a list: "Energy independence, preserve rainforests, sustainability, green jobs, livable cities, renewables, clean water and air, healthy children, etc., etc." A member of the audience asks: "What if it's a big hoax, and we create a better world for nothing?"
If we luck out and discover the problem isn't as bad as we thought, we'll still benefit from all the ancillary benefits of reducing greenhouse gases, in the form of health and environmental improvements as well as economic growth. Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón points out that: "Reducing greenhouse gas emissions requires action in the very same areas that throughout history have driven economic growth: investment in efficiency, infrastructure and innovation."
Let's stop saying that the climate problem is too big and that we're too small, too unsure or too busy to fix it. It's time to set aside all our excuses and get to work.
Ellen Moyer, Ph.D., P.E., is an independent consultant dedicated to remediating environmental problems and promoting green practices to prevent new problems. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Facebook or find more information on her website.