Every four years presidential candidates tell the American people that that election is a turning point for the country. This year they might have actually been right. To be sure, there are always differences between candidates. On a range of issues, from health care to tax reform, voters this year faced a real choice about two different approaches to governing. But the other turning point in this election, which has a very real impact on the future of this country, was the bipartisan silence, during almost all of the campaign, on one of the most critical issues of our time. By this I refer to the silence around climate change.
For the first time in 24 years, the words "climate" and "warming" were not used once in the presidential debate, while "oil" and "natural gas" were mentioned 56 times. To put that in context, the U.S. just experienced the warmest eight months on record, during which time over 60 percent of the nation experienced moderate-to-exceptional drought conditions, 44,000 wild fires burned 7.7 million acres, and U.S. corn production reached its lowest yield in 17 years. In 2011, the 14 most severe weather events in the country cost the U.S. close to $140 billion. I write this in the midst of Hurricane Sandy, which is on track to be the largest storm ever to hit the east coast.
The nation is haltingly moving from one disaster to the next while the candidates bickered about who can drill for more oil and gas. To ignore the problem of greenhouse gas emissions while millions of Americans are suffering as a result is either denial to the extreme or the peak of negligence.
Now, before people jump to conclusions, let's clear up one misconception right away. Averting the worst consequences of global climate change is not about protecting the planet. It is about protecting us. As the extreme weather events of the last decade have shown us time and time again, the planet is quite capable of protecting itself. Eons ago, Earth existed and even prospered under conditions that would be uninhabitable to mankind and most other forms of life today. The heat waves, flooding, wild fires and gale force winds that we now experience with increasing frequency and intensity are all a part of the Earth's adaptive capacity to adjust to a changing climate.
Pumping more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere does not threaten the planet--it has been a lot hotter than this in its 4.5 billion years--but it surely makes the planet more threatening to us. Put another way, we are turning the planet into something that we, and much of life as we know it, cannot live in.
Don't believe me? Ask the Pacific islanders of low lying nations like Papua New Guinea who are now climate refugees after permanently evacuating their homes in the wake of sea level rise. Ask the owners of the 275,000 homes that were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, or the 600,000 pets that were killed or left without a home from that storm.
It is going to be some time before we know the full costs of Hurricane Sandy. What we know for sure, however, is that until we open up a dialogue about climate change in this country, based on the premise that the 99 percent of climatologists who say that climate change is happening and that human beings are to blame, are correct, we do not stand a chance. When our leaders focus on an "all of the above energy strategy" and "clean coal and natural gas," that sends the wrong signal. That says that we are not ready to think about the sweeping changes needed to stem the tide of these destructive weather events from which we seem to be perpetually recovering.
We know what has to be done. Clean renewable energy that can produce electricity while emitting zero carbon dioxide is available today. Energy efficient appliances that can do the same work as their less efficient counterparts with less energy are available now. President Obama finalized new fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks so that by 2025 the U.S. auto fleet will have to get about 54.5 miles per gallon. This will save Americans roughly 3 million barrels of oil per day and $140 billion per year. That was a good step, but it is not by itself enough.
The U.S. has to break its silence on climate change, accept that our current energy-intense lifestyles are responsible for the increasingly violent weather patterns, and tax, or otherwise limit the fossil fuels that are emitting climate-altering greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The planet does not need to be saved. We do.
This story originally appeared in Huffington, in the iTunes App store.