The horrible toll the pandemic is taking may lead us to overlook a longer-term crisis. President-elect Joe Biden has repeatedly stated the two most crucial matters he must address are the coronavirus pandemic, especially the distribution of vaccines, and the millions of Americans who remain out of work.
Add two others that have arisen: questions about a Senate Trump impeachment trial and growing pressures for social media reform.
Yet Biden remains keenly aware of a longer-term problem that will require the resolute attention of his administration – climate change.
On the campaign trail, in varying words he repeated the following: “From coastal towns to rural farms to urban centers, climate change poses an existential threat – not just to our environment, but to our health, our communities, our national security, and our economic well-being.” This problem may seem distant and, to many, hypothetical. It is anything but. Award-winning climate scientist Joelle Geris emphasizes that “there genuinely is no more time to waste. We must act as though our home is on fire – because it is.”
When speaking of climate change, we mention raging wildfires in the American West; Atlantic hurricanes, so many last year that meteorologists ran out of storm names; global temperature rise; warming oceans; rising sea levels; glacial retreat; the Artic Sea’s shrinking ice cover.
Climate deniers assert any number of reasons why these do not point to global warming: The sun and volcanoes produce climate, not greenhouse gases, they might say; presumed correlations between CO2 emissions and rising temperatures don’t hold up; climate models are unreliable; scientists manipulate data; and it’s all cyclical since there have been temperature rises and drops before. However, scientists armed with data can counter such arguments.
As to whether recent temperature increases are normal, scientist and climatologists utilize many techniques to study data on ocean sediments, coral reefs, sedimentary rocks, core samples, greenhouse gas levels, tree rings and more. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC), the foremost international body that assesses climate change, concludes that there is a “95 percent probability that human-produced greenhouse gases…have caused much of the observed increase in Earth’s temperatures over the past 50 years.” The speed of climate change in the past two centuries is striking. What once took thousands of years to change can sometimes now occur in decades, and certainly since the Industrial Revolution began.
Last month, Abrahm Lustgarten, an environmental reporter for ProPublica, published a fascinating piece in The New York Times Magazine that highlights the impact of warming temperatures. Some of the planet’s coldest regions will become more temperate, its land more productive agriculturally. In the eastern regions of Russia, for example, environmentalists have noticed that the growing season has been moving northward. Spring thaws come earlier.
A Russian climate ecologist submits that in half a century the reach of Russia’s permafrost may shrink to half of what it is now. Nations like Canada and parts of northern Europe will become more productive even as U.S. agricultural land becomes less so. Such changes almost inevitably will produce geopolitical changes as well.
To combat climate change Biden has proposed bold action. It is reassuring that he began with discussions that included climate experts and activists, mayors, governors, union officials, and private sector representatives. The goal that emerged calls for the U.S. to achieve a 100 percent clean-energy economy by 2050. We may expect a greater swing to more efficient available technologies, including solar panels and wind turbines, to slash annual greenhouse gas emissions. A full overhaul of our energy economy is envisioned, together with recommitment to the Paris Climate Agreement and other international agreements jettisoned during the past several years.
It will be costly, he acknowledges, paid for by rescinding the excesses of the “Trump tax cuts for corporations, reducing incentives for tax havens, evasion, and outsourcing, ensuring corporations pay their fair share, closing other loopholes in our tax code that reward wealth not work, and ending subsidies for fossil fuels.”
To oversee U.S. policy Biden has named former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy as his national climate adviser and appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry as his international climate envoy.
The climate issue before us is real. Together with the coronavirus pandemic, it brings a renewed appreciation of our shared global existence. We have come to better understand our planetary interdependence and internalize the fact that all humans are in this together, that international accords on health, climate, air and water quality are wise.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at email@example.com.