Why Climate Change is the Most Important Issue Humanity Has Ever Faced

 Here in the City of Roses, the annual Rose Festival celebration will have to proceedwithout the roses. For the second consecutive year, there has been record rainfall on the Portland parade. The weather finally turned, but locals are wondering whether there will be more than a few random days of Spring before the advent of Summer. It's just another example of what Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe describes as "global weirding":

An upsurge in heavy rainstorms in the United States has coincided with prolonged drought, sometimes in the same location, she said, noting that west Texas has seen a record-length dry period over the last five years, even as there have been two 100-year rain events.

Hayhoe, other scientists, civic planners and a manager at the giant Swiss Re reinsurance firm all cited human-caused climate change as an factor pushing this shift toward more extreme weather.

While none would blame climate change for any specific weather event, Hayhoe said a background of climate change had an impact on every rainstorm, heat wave or cold snap.

Beyond Portland, April saw the most tornadoes ever recorded for a single month, more than doubling the previous record. In different parts of the United States, May saw record heat or record cold, record rainfall and flooding and record droughts. Global warming does not mean that everything everywhere will grow hotter. The science denialists mistakenly and often dishonestly misuse those record colds or record rains as proof that the planet is not warming, but they don't understand or don't want you to understand that climate is complicated. It's not about everything getting hotter. It's about the extremes. The weirding. The new normal. But the surface of the planet is getting hotter. Globally, April was the seventh hottest month on record. It already is being estimated that 2012 will becomehottest year on record, breaking the previous high which was set all the way back in 2010.

Among scientists, there is no debate about anthropogenic climate change. A few rogue loons with some level of scientific credentials can be found to make just about any claim denying any scientific facts, but the climate denialists only get attention because they arewell-funded by the industries most responsible for anthropogenic climate change, and because they too often are enabled and coddled by incompetent and at times corrupt and complicit major media. The corporatist tools and intellectual stooges that comprise elected and nominated Republicans have done exactly what one would expect, attempting to undermine any and all efforts even to study, much less to address, climate change. Every Republican Senate nominee from the 2010 election cycle bought into some level of climate denialism. We know that. We expect that. But Democrats are supposed to know better. Democrats are supposed to do better. And the vast majority of Democrats in Washington, DC are aware of the science, accept the science, and claim to care about the science. But that's not enough. Global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions last year set a new record, leading the International Energy Agency to open pessimism about the prospects of limiting global temperature to two degrees centigrade, which would itself be catastrophic. But what are the Democrats doing about it? To its great credit, and against the usual opposition from Republicans and a few right wing Democrats, the Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency has moved forward to regulate greenhouse gasses. But as the New York Times editorialized as the climate bill died last year in the Senate, even after the disastrous BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico:

Mr. Obama never fully committed to the fight. He raised hopes here and around the world last year when he pledged in Copenhagen to reduce United States greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent. Until a couple of months ago, he talked a good game, praising the House bill that aimed at the 17 percent target and promising to make every effort to get the Senate to follow.

Then, despite the opportunity offered by the oil spill to press for a bold energy policy, the president essentially disappeared. What has passed for advocacy by the White House in recent days has consisted largely of one op-ed article by the energy adviser, Carol Browner, and daily assurances from the press secretary, Robert Gibbs, that the White House was “working behind the scenes.”

Can the country hope for better in the months ahead? It must. The danger of global warming is not going away just because Washington’s politicians don’t want to deal with it.

That's not even close to being good enough. Nothing less than Manhattan Project urgency is good enough. This is a crisis and this president is uniquely gifted at presenting and promoting a message, but his occasional speeches aren't anything close to being good enough. People can be awakened to the urgency of addressing a crisis, and no one in the world is more capable of awakening the American public than is President Obama. He needs to treat this crisis as if it were a crisis. He needs to galvanize the Party he leads to treat this crisis as if it were a crisis. He needs to make clear that dithering and compromising are not acceptable. He needs to call out the Republicans as a threat to our collective future. He needs to make climate change the most important issue in politics because it is the most important issue humanity has ever faced. He can use science. He can use facts. He can appeal to the emotions of everyone who hopes to be alive in half a century, or who cares about anyone who hopes to be alive in half a century.

How bad can it get? Is it hyperbole to call climate change the most important issue humanity has ever faced? Do other issues even compare when climate change itself encompasses almost all of them? How important are the issues of war and mass violence and human rights? The geopolitical consequences of climate change are almost unimaginable. There will be droughts and losses of vegetation, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has warned of potentially catastrophic impacts on food production. Imagine 200 million people displaced, worldwide. Where will they go? How will they survive? How will the less endangered people and governments cope with such an unprecedented torrent of refugees? Think of the reactionary xenophobia already resulting from immigration in the United States. Consider that the wonder of Europe's open internal travel is about to end, as nations there prepare to close their borders, as their own reactionary response to the increasing numbers of refugees fleeing the violence in revolutionary North Africa and the Middle East.

Does health care matter? How will nations cope as climate change expands the territories of everything from dangerous diseases to deadly insects? One need only consider the effects of record tornados and increasingly severe hurricanes to begin to realize the human costs of climate disasters. And then there are the impacts on forests and ocean acidification, the latter threatening the base of the marine food chain, and all whose livlihoods or lives depend upon it. Back on land, the disruptions to agriculture could undermine the food supplies for billions.

If all this isn't enough, and for those that care only about money, the economy often is an excuse for doing little or nothing about climate change. The presumption is that what's good for the environment is bad for the economy. It's another of the fundamental lies used by the narrow special interests whose riches do indeed depend on harming not helping. But however politically dominant the fossil fuels industries may be, their business strength does not translate into wider economic strength or even stability. Climate change is an economic crisis. One cannot honestly discuss the future economy without giving climate change primacy. The Stern review on the economics of climate change could not have been more clear, and the economic bottom line says it all:

Lord Stern of Brentford made headlines in 2006 with a report that said countries needed to spend 1% of their GDP to stop greenhouse gases rising to dangerous levels. Failure to do this would lead to damage costing much more, the report warned - at least 5% and perhaps more than 20% of global GDP.

But speaking yesterday in London, Stern said evidence that climate change was happening faster than had been previously thought meant that emissions needed to be reduced even more sharply.

This meant the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would have to be kept below 500 parts per million, said Stern. In 2006, he set a figure of 450-550ppm. "I now think the appropriate thing would be in the middle of that range," he said. "To get below 500ppm ... would cost around 2% of GDP."

Two percent now or five to twenty percent later. And from a political standpoint it also isn't hard to sell the truth that responsibly addressing climate change not only would prevent that GDP disaster, it would stimulate the economy in new ways and begin to define what should be a new modern economic model for the future. If only someone somewhere in a position of serious authority would only make the effort to sell it.

On so many important issues, the impacts of climate change overwhelm other factors. Climate change is about war and peace and human rights and poverty and hunger and immigration and health care and natural disasters and in more ways than can be counted, climate change is about the economy. No other issue has ever had so many ramifications in so many areas. The Republicans have their collective heads buried in something other than mere sand, but for the Democrats being better than the Republicans is not nearly enough. Acknowledging the existence of climate change is not nearly enough. If anything, it highlights an even more disturbing level of irresponsibility and negligence, because unlike the Republicans, most Democrats at least know to some degree what is happening. They have no excuses for not doing absolutely everything in their collective power to awaken the ignorant and to galvanize popular support for the radical changes that are necessary, lest even more radical and much more dangerous changes become inevitable. This moment in history demands leadership, and leadership does not mean a wink and a nod and business as usual. Imagine if President Obama had the vision of Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard:

Friends, the second US President John Adams once famously said that “facts are stubborn things.” No opinion poll can change the fact that climate change is real. It is caused by human activity. And we must cut carbon pollution. In a nation rich in fossil fuels, I wish it were not so. But it is. Greenhouse gas levels are one-third higher than before the Industrial Revolution,and higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years.

As a result, global temperatures have risen 0.7 degrees celsius over the past century and continue to rise. The last decade was the world’s hottest on record, warmer than the 1990s which were in turn warmer than the 1980s. In fact, globally 2010 was the equal warmest year on record, tied with 2005 and 1998. 2010 is the thirty-fourth consecutive year with global temperatures above the 20th Century average. In Australia, average temperatures have risen almost one degree since 1910,and each decade since the 1940s has been warmer than the one before. That warming is real. Its consequences are real. And it will change our lives in real and practical ways. More extreme bushfire conditions and droughts. Falling crop yields. Loss of species. Increased cyclone intensity. More days of extreme heat. Coastal flooding as sea levels rise. Bleaching of our coral reefs. And a substantial decline in alpine snow cover. Indeed, Professor Garnaut’s latest report indicates that the need to act is greater than ever. And the scientific consensus is stronger than ever....

I learnt to have faith in the creative and optimistic spirit of this nation and its people. To believe that we are a smart, competent, resilient nation. A nation that has done great things in the past, and which can do even greater thingsin the future. A nation that understands when the soft options are gone, only hard choices remain. That is why we choose action over inaction. We will cut carbon pollution. We will not leave our nation stranded by history. We will not live at the expense of future generations. We will get this call right and get this job done: For our nation. For our people. For our future.

But as Joe Romm commented:

Obama, sadly, now refuses to explain to the American public the high cost of inaction, the myriad benefits of swift action, and the shameful, pitiful strategy adopted by the pro-pollution, anti-science deniers in the GOP political leadership — although he did give pieces of what needs to be said in various speeches back in 2009 (see links at end).

Gillard’s speech is an excellent combination of substance and rhetoric.  The whole thing is worth reading since we’re unlikely to hear such a blunt and courageous speech in this country by any major U.S. political leader for a long time.

But it's even worse than that, because as Bill McKibben just pointed out, President Obama has actually pursued a policy of expanding coal mining and oil drilling. Which continues to bestaggering, given that the man is smart enough and aware enough to know what is actually happening. We need his leadership. The world needs his leadership. No one else can do what he can do, but not only is he making only partial efforts to help, he is also making partial efforts that exacerbate the problems.

We as Democrats, as activists, and as political junkies cannot stand silently by. On the most important issue humanity has ever faced, and with disruptions to our very way of life looming and perhaps now unpreventable, our president and our leaders are not leading. We have to make them. We have to change the nature of how we live, but we also must demand better from those we send to Washington. Every important issue is trumped by climate change. Every important issue is impacted and many will be defined by climate change. We must find those Democrats who have the courage to lead on this unprecedented issue. We must make climate change the issue by which we define Democratic leadership.


Daily Kos / By Laurence Lewis

Posted at June 6, 2011, 2:55am