Opinion

The Great Debate

Obama’s climate change quandary

By Sarah Laskow
November 8, 2012

After a campaign in which climate change did not come up, and after the East Coast weathered a storm that, if it was not brought on by climate change, felt an awful lot like the storms that will be, the president of the United States finally nodded in its direction. It was not much. It was not even a whole sentence. But it felt like the first rain after a long drought. From Barack Obama’s victory speech:

“We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”

There it was—a sign that, although cap-and-trade legislation failed so wretchedly in Congress and although the Environmental Protection Agency has had to keep quiet about its work to limit carbon emissions, the president still remembers that climate change is a danger to this country. It is not clear that he is going to do anything about it, however: In his speech, he said his goals for his second term were “reducing our deficit, reforming our tax code, fixing our immigration system, freeing ourselves from foreign oil.” But since 2010, when the Senate gave up on passing a climate bill, it has seemed that politicians have forgotten how to talk about climate change ‑- or are too afraid to talk about it. If the country is ever going to deal with this threat, the first step is to start talking about it again.

Whether or not climate change made Sandy the beast it was, this latest storm was a preview of what global warming has in store for us ‑ big storms, with big storm surges, made worse by rising sea levels. But there will be no Pearl Harbor for climate change ‑ no one event that will allow a president to get on television the next day and say: Climate change has officially breached American defenses. Now, it’s personal. Climate change will not play out like an action movie. (Other than that one time it did.)

Instead, climate change is more like an insurgent group that will not take credit for its attacks. It is a dangerous enemy, but when it strikes, it is hard to pin down, immediately, who is to blame. The best intelligence on its movements is no good. Analysts are sure it will strike—but they cannot predict when. When the attacks come, they might suspect climate change, but they have to press hard on their best sources—data, climate models, historical trends—to know for sure. And how do the people without access to those sources know whether to trust the analysts? Enough bad luck and bad weather comes around that it is easy to believe that at least some of these disasters are random incidents.

What is a president to do? Start dealing with climate change the way we already prepare for terrorist threats. Towns, cities and states across the country use federal, state and local funds to prepare and protect themselves against terrorists. It’s time we find a way to give them the resources they need to prepare and protect themselves against the climate. With Congress refusing to engage in cap-and-trade policy, it’s Obama’s only option. Sometimes a president has to use the back door.

For the most part, state and local governments have been doing this work without much public support from their federal counterparts. The very systems that need to be shored up against the threats of climate change ‑ transportation infrastructure, natural resources like wetlands, public housing ‑ are among those that have lost funding as states cut budgets and Washington works on cutting deficits. After 9/11, Congress sent billions of dollars out of Washington to shore up defenses against terrorism. Meanwhile, some leaders in D.C. still refuse to admit that climate change is a problem. When experts on local climate adaptation testify before Congress, they have to endure Senator Jim Inhofe heaping scorn on the “global warming alarmist movement.”

Despite this, in some areas we are seeing what can happen when a government earmarks funds for climate preparation. PlaNYC promises that the city will improve its capability to capture and reroute intense rainfall, revise building standards to minimize damage from floodwaters and create a tool to assess climate risks and prioritize responses to them. Maryland is working to buy land to move wetlands and protect the coast from storm surges. California is looking at how to adapt crop management so that, as heat and rainfall patterns shift, its farmers can keep growing vegetables.

This is where the president should start, with the work that’s being done. He does not need to finger Sandy as the storm that swept climate change into the country. (That might even be a mistake, as the cold winter that is coming on the East Coast has already begun to bring out the climate denier in those who tend toward denial.) He just needs to lay out the threats to the country—dangers much like the ones Sandy brought—and talk about the good work state and local leaders are doing. Then he needs to say that the federal government will do everything it can to support those efforts.

He could go further, too. He could start talking about our dependence on carbon. If oil addiction makes terrorist groups stronger by throwing money at countries that fund them, carbon addiction makes climate change stronger, too. It is too soon to try for cap-and-trade again, but there are state and local initiatives that try, on smaller scales, to draw down carbon emissions. Obama could promise to support those initiatives—to reward businesses and governments that find creative ways to end their carbon addiction. And while simply talking about climate change will not necessarily convince skeptics, when the president keeps silent about the problem, they see it as a sign that they’re winning. “We can see how bad things have gotten for the alarmists,” Senator Inhofe said at the beginning of August. “President Obama himself never dares to mention global warming.”

Supporting local adaptation and sustainability efforts will not have the impact that a federal policy like cap-and-trade would have had. But if we are not going to do anything to stop climate change from getting worse, at least we can be ready to deal with the consequences of our ignorance.

PHOTO: Hurricane Sandy is seen on the east coast of the United States in this NASA handout satellite image taken at 0715 GMT, October 29, 2012. REUTERS/NASA/NOAA/GOES Project/Handout

Comments
7 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

This is snapshot politics. Somehow we are to believe that prior to industry and automobiles, the earth was a natural Utopia where nothing ever changed. There weren’t fires burning and producing c02 in every fireplace and every kitchen. Everyone had horses and mules but they never farted or anything. There was never any ice age because the climate was always the same and measured. Volcanoes never spewed ash into the air and forest fires didn’t occur or literally burn half of a continent at a time. C02 levels were never much higher than they are though dinosaurs needed massive amounts of vegetation to exist. All those ice cores we drilled and analyzed through thousands of years of history were all the same, year after year.

This isn’t to say it isn’t happening, only that to think you’re going to curb it is stupid. Here’s one for you “we have to save the planet” nuts. The moon powers the oceans which powers everything else. The moon is moving away from earth at 4cm per year. Sooner of later the inevitable will happen. Now run off and fix it. Lobby for a tax in some country in some little corner of the world. Make a few people rich in the process for their fear mongering efforts.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive
 

Biggest bang for the buck, with the least disturbance to anyone…. incentivize natural gas vehicles and power plants.

This is already happening somewhat due to the cheap price of natural gas. The price of natural gas in the U.S. has fallen 80% in the last 10 years. We have an abundant supply and the infrastructure is already in place (it’s already piped to every house and office). Needs no refining, no trucking, no shipping…. and it burns cleaner, yielding less CO2 and particulates.

What would the incentives look like? For vehicles: Tax credit for natural gas conversion kit on your car, and compressor port for your house. Power plants: Tax credit for any plants still needing burner conversions from coal to natural gas (most have already done this on their own to give themselves flexibility).

The lower price of natural gas over the alternatives is its own incentive after that.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive
 

Denial is hardly a strategy, nor are accusations of fear mongering. There is no question that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is increasing. You may deny HOW it gets there, but you cannot deny that it IS there. The fact that humans create millions of tons of the stuff every year seems to be a very logical cause/effect relationship.

The amount of both O2 and CO2 in the atmosphere has fluctuated in the past, but not as quickly as it is now (another clue that it is more than likely man made, not a natural variation). Volcanoes erupt, but stop; ash and SO2 cause global cooling (short term) and the CO2 creates global warming (long term). But the Earth is quite capable of absorbing intermittent spurts of CO2 in it’s many carbon sinks.

Forest fires and animal respiration are carbon neutral; the burn generates CO2, but the forest that regenerates absorbs it. Animals eat plants to respirate or produce methane, and the plants regrow and (re-)absorb the CO2. But the burning fossil fuels creates CO2 and there is no offset; the Earth does not ‘make new coal’, at least not in the geological blink of an eye in which we burn the stuff.

So should we spend our resources on digging in, or digging out? The cost of business as usual plus climate defenses has to be in excess of the cost of simply finding renewable/less damaging resources in the first place (and potentially cost Sen Inhofe’s oil rich state revenue…am I an alarmist, or is he a protectionist?)

But let’s say that we go the route of renewables and global warming isn’t caused by our prolific burning of fossil fuels. Would multiple sources of energy dependence and security be a bad thing? Avoiding a toxic legacy of coal ash, mercury contamination, nuclear waste and as-yet to be revealed after-effects of fracking? Is energy efficiency (or financial efficiency, since making energy costs money) a poor design philosophy? Is an affordable house without a utility bill undesirable?

As for the quandary of about the moon, we can probably put those ideas on the back burner. It will slip beyond the Earth’s gravitational pull in a few million years, which is a problem for someone else to think about. And they can continue to think about it for millions of years beyond that, since life on Earth is not dependent on having a moon.

Posted by Mike_s1 | Report as abusive
 

Points were well taken, but it wasn’t meant as a denial. I understand the idea that we are creating more issues than the earth can absorb in the same amount of time and that the problem is compounding. When I hear the term renewable energy, as though they can plant an elemental seed and grow new ones, I wonder where people think these technologies come from. An electric car uses its fair share of resources for charging and battery maintenance also. If it requires more than sunlight and water, it is not green, nor renewable in the long run. Car batteries and computer chips aren’t renewable, but wood is. Imagine 7 billion people all going back to wood. HA!

Even components needed for building hydroelectric facilities will run out one day. The amount of recycling and resource management it would take to slow the usage to a crawl would take full blown global communism to enact. Good luck.

Once it’s gone it’s gone. But as to the question of “Is an affordable house without a utility bill undesirable?” No, it is not, what it is, is unavoidable. We all know that. But has any generation knowingly made significant sacrifices for the benefit of an unborn one? No, and never will.

As for the last paragraph, the moon isn’t necessary, but without it life would change more drastic than can even be discussed here under this topic.

Posted by LysanderTucker | Report as abusive
 

Climate change — as in the earth is warming up — is probably real, since we are still coming off of the last ice age (i.e. an EXTREMELY abnormal period in earth’s climate history), but what is NOT real is that it is caused by man’s activities.

It is arguable as to whether man may be contributing to it, but it is a moot point since it is happening and we must deal with it.

That does NOT mean a reduction in our lifestyles to somehow reduce “global warming”, which is impossible. Arguing that man can keep an ice age from warming is ignorant arrogance beyond belief.

There is a reasonable explanation why this is happening, but the radical quasi-religious environmentalist movement won’t admit it because it undermines that real agenda, which is to bring down Western civilization.

However, NONE of them has EVER responded to me when I question them about what they would do with the “excess” population of 7+ BILLION people who would literally starve to death if they succeeded with their plans.

THAT would result in a mass die off of humans as great as the dinosaurs — a true “extinction event”.

The rational explanation for long-term climate change is the movement of the continents to their present position over the past several hundred million years, which is TOTALLY responsible for the decline in the average temperature of the earth to what we see today.

It is NOT normal for the earth to have ice caps, nor is Antarctica supposed to be covered with an ice sheet.

In fact, for much of earth’s history Antarctica had a climate suitable for the dinosaurs. The proof is their bones have been found there. It has been relatively recently that the earth was plunged into this last ice age. The proof, which the radical environmentalist movement has never admitted to the general public, is the present ice age really began with the opening of the Drake Passage at the tip of South America.

—————————————

(From Wikipedia) There is no significant land anywhere around the world at the latitudes of the Drake Passage, which is important to the unimpeded flow of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current which carries a huge volume of water (about 600 times the flow of the Amazon River) through the Passage and around Antarctica.

The passage is known to have been closed until around 41 million years ago[2] according to a chemical study of fish teeth found in oceanic sedimentary rock.

Before the passage opened, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were separated entirely with Antarctica being much warmer and having no ice cap.

The joining of the two great oceans started the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and cooled the continent significantly.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drake_passa ge

The Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) is an ocean current that flows clockwise from west to east around Antarctica.

The ACC is the dominant circulation feature of the Southern Ocean and, at approximately 125 Sverdrups, the largest ocean current.[1]

The current is circumpolar due to the lack of any landmass connecting with Antarctica and this keeps warm ocean waters away from Antarctica, enabling that continent to maintain its huge ice sheet.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antarctic_C ircumpolar_Current

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Environmentalists have NEVER correlated continental drift with climate change, and for good reason. It would cast serious doubt on their quasi-religious cult teachings.

I would like to see a response to these charges that they are deliberately suppressing data to force the global economy to collapse for their own reasons, which have nothing whatsoever to do with global warming.

These people are dangerous, and their “teachings” should be treated as coming from a religious cult that is a clear and present danger to humanity.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive
 

I forgot to include the definition of a “Sverdrup” in my comment, but it is critical in understanding how large the Antarctic Circumpolar current — at 125 Sverdrups — really is in terms of other oceanic measurements more familiar to most people.

—————————————

(From Wikipedia) The sverdrup, named in honour of the pioneering oceanographer Harald Sverdrup, is a unit of measure of volume transport.

It is used almost exclusively in oceanography, to measure the transport of ocean currents.

It is equivalent to 106 cubic metres per second[1][2] (0.001 km3/s, or about 264 million U.S. gallons per second).

*** The entire global input of fresh water from rivers to the ocean is equal to about 1 sverdrup.

*** The water transport in the Gulf Stream gradually increases from 30 Sv in the Florida Current to a maximum of 150 Sv at 55°W longitude.[3]

The heat carried within this volume equals roughly that transported through the atmosphere to make the relatively milder climate of north-western Europe.

———————————————-

Obviously, at 125 Sverdrups the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is a MAJOR factor in global climate, and particularly in keeping Antarctica frozen.

But, of course, all of you are already familiar with it, so I am probably not telling you anything new.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive
 

It seems that at least was a statement Obama responsible and I think the debate is what to do. As you say we can not be prisoners of our ignorance and stay with his hands crossed as global warming progresses.

Posted by debatepopular | Report as abusive
 

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