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Saturday, Nov 22, 2014
Commentary

The climate emergency


Published:

President Obama's new Climate Action Plan, recently presented in a Georgetown University speech, is a deftly crafted, politically adroit plan. It's quintessential Obama, outlining pragmatic, incremental, measured steps toward decarbonizing the energy sector.

Bypassing a gridlocked Congress, he reminds us of his first-term energy efficiency and clean energy achievements, including stricter auto fuel efficiency standards and the doubling of wind and solar capacity, albeit from a tiny base.

He takes credit for the recent drop in U.S. carbon emissions that actually stems from the recession and the switch by utilities from coal to cheaper natural gas.

He announces his plan to double wind and solar capacity again, and to strengthen Federal energy efficiency standards and implement new climate preparedness measures.

It's awfully tempting to view this eloquent speech as a landmark policy statement fundamentally reorienting American energy policy away from fossil fuels toward renewables and energy efficiency. Maybe so.

But while ostensibly the "opening bell" in an intensified federal campaign against carbon pollution, the plan's primary practical impacts are to accelerate the replacement of coal by another fossil fuel, newly abundant natural gas.

The actual carbon pollution reductions to be achieved are small - only about 4 percent below 1990 levels.

Moreover, although the president's speech acknowledges the costly damage that climate change is already doing to the American way of life, the plan requires neither deep cuts in U.S. carbon pollution nor emergency measures to combat climate change.

Nor does it really explain what will happen if the world doesn't promptly and steeply reduce its carbon pollution. Somehow Obama avoids mentioning that the nation is already in the grip of a global climate emergency.

This may not seem obvious at first, but an emergency has two basic components: It presents a grave threat to life, liberty, property, or the environment, and the situation requires immediate action.

Climate change is obviously already doing grave damage to the Earth, and it threatens to do even more harm, per numerous studies. Thus it satisfies the first condition.

Because damage to the climate is essentially irreversible on time scales of interest to present generations, immediate action is necessary before further irrevocable harm is done. Thus, the second condition for an emergency is met.

Data from the World Health Organization indicates that over the past 35 years, more than 5 million people have already died from increases in disease and malnutrition brought on by climate change.

These climate casualties have occurred even though the world has only warmed about 1.4-degrees F since the dawn of industrialization. The future is far more menacing.

If we continue heating the world at the current escalating rate, billions of people will neither have enough water nor sufficient reliable, affordable food supplies, and tens of millions of environmental refugees will be on the move, hungry, sick and desperate. This is a recipe for increased conflict and chaos in many parts of the world.

The warming to date is but a fraction of the heating that is already in store for us. Even if heat-trapping gas emissions (largely CO2) miraculously fell to zero tomorrow, the atmosphere will get another 1 degree- to 2-degrees F just from excess heat already absorbed by the oceans due to human activities so far.

But rather than curtailing emissions as much as possible, we've done the opposite. The world's emissions of heat-trapping gases increased 58 percent between 1990 and 2012. We are now on track to increase global average temperatures by some 7-degrees to 11-degrees F by 2100. Some experts are projecting that 7-degrees F could be reached by 2060 to 2080.

Such temperatures haven't been seen on this planet in 5 million years. And those average temperatures would be roughly doubled in the continental interiors of the Earth's land masses.

In the overheated world only a few decades from now, up to 30 percent of the world would be in drought at any given time, up from 1 percent today. Moreover, an estimated 50 percent of land where crops now grow would become unsuitable for them.

Climate change has already had an enormous impact. Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina and others collectively killed thousands, left millions homeless and caused damage approaching $200 billion. Last year was the hottest year on record, and much of the nation was stricken with severe and persistent drought.

The president's climate plan overall deserves our enthusiastic support, and his belated reaffirmation of U.S. determination to combat climate change will strengthen his hand in international climate negotiations with developing countries. But at the core, it is still an early palliative step on the path to stabilizing the climate.

The climate emergency today is even more threatening in fundamental ways to our long-term security than the terrorism and conventional military threats on which we spend hundreds of billions a year. The climate crisis therefore needs to become a top U.S. financial and political priority. It is humanity's deadliest enemy.

John J. Berger, Ph.D., specializes in energy and environmental science and is the author and editor of 11 books, including "Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science" (Northbrae Books, 2013) and the forthcoming "Climate Peril: The Intelligent Readeršs Guide to the Climate Crisis."

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