Way past time to consider climate change

It was a long campaign, but I don’t recall any discussion of global climate change until the very end, when Superstorm Sandy jump-started a long-overdue conversation. It is time, way past time, for us to stop pretending there isn’t enough evidence to take action.

Two recent reports make it clear that the outlook is even worse than previously thought. A NASA-funded study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research appears in the current issue of Science Magazine. After analyzing 16 leading sophisticated climate models, “the researchers found the climate models that most accurately captured … complex moisture processes and associated clouds, which have a great influence on global climate, were also the ones that showed the greatest amounts of warming as society emits more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.” Bottom line: Models that have predicted more extreme warming levels are more likely to be right than those that have predicted lower levels. See www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/earth20121108.html for more information.

The second report might be even more disturbing. Last week, the National Research Council, in a study commissioned by the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies, laid out some of the difficult national security problems presented by global climate change.

The study predicts that global climate change will inevitably create more frequent disruptions that will have profound political and societal consequences. “The conjunctions of events will likely include clusters of apparently unrelated climate events occurring closely in time, although perhaps widely separated geographically, which actually do have common causes, sequences or cascades of events in which a climate event precipitates a series of other physical or biological consequences in unexpected ways, and disruptions of globally connected systems, such as food markets, supply chains for strategic commodities, or global health systems.” Bottom line: Global climate change threatens political stability around the world caused by massive disruptions in such things as food, water and medical supplies. To read more, go to www.nap.edu.

I don’t think it is either fruitful or scientifically rigorous to get into a debate about whether an individual event such as Sandy was caused by or exacerbated by climate change. What Sandy did show us was the potential cost in human life and treasure if it turns out that climate change is occurring and we do nothing to stop it. A series of events perhaps even more devastating than Sandy could well bankrupt the United States government.

I have never understood how climate change became an ideological issue. I can understand why oil and coal companies might want to deny it is happening, but I don’t see why it should be a liberal or conservative issue. I was working in Washington during the Reagan administration and remember the letter President Reagan sent to Congress recommending the ratification of the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. He said:

“The Montreal Protocol provides for internationally coordinated control of ozone-depleting substances in order to protect public health and the environment from potential adverse effects of depletion of stratospheric ozone. The Protocol was negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program, pursuant to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, which was ratified by the United States in August 1986.

In this historic agreement, the international community undertakes cooperative measures to protect a vital global resource. The United States played a leading role in the negotiation of the Protocol. United States ratification is necessary for entry into force and effective implementation of the Protocol. Early ratification by the United States will encourage similar action by other nations whose participation is also essential. I recommend that the Senate give early and favorable consideration to the Protocol and give its advice and consent to ratification.”

I believe that President Reagan, a dedicated conservative who believed in the application of cost-benefit analysis to political decisions, would feel just as strongly today about confronting global warming.

Will it be expensive? You bet. Not to make light of the problem, but I can’t help but remember an old advertising campaign for FRAM oil filters that encouraged people to pay more for their filters in order to avoid major engine costs later. The punch line was “pay me now or pay me later.”

The inhabitants of this planet cannot risk the consequences of a “pay me later” decision on global warming.

Originally published 18 November 2012 on delawareonline.com