Opinion

The Great Debate

The price of ignoring climate change

Home destroyed nearly five months ago during the landfall of Superstorm Sandy in Mantoloking, New Jersey March 22, 2013. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The effects of climate change, driven by carbon pollution, hit Americans harder each year. Extreme weather events like hurricanes, wildfires and droughts are growing ever more frequent and severe.

Beyond our borders, these changes are hitting developing nations.

Since our nation’s founding, America has stood as an example for the world. Now, we owe it to ourselves and to other nations, who look to Washington, to lead the way on climate change by putting a price on carbon pollution and taking other steps to minimize the harm being done to developing nations — and our own.

In many of the world’s poorest regions, the sun scorches drought-stricken farmland and parches freshwater sources. Fierce storms bring ravaging floods. Warming, rapidly acidifying oceans and shifting seasons drive off economically valuable species and foster pests and disease.

This year, the worst flood in a decade killed at least 38 people in Mozambique and left 150,000 homeless. Warmer weather allows malaria-bearing mosquitoes to move into previously unaffected altitudes, infecting cities like Nairobi, which had purposely been built above the “malaria line.” Ten of the 15 largest cities in the developing world, including Shanghai, Mumbai and Cairo, are at risk of flooding from rising sea levels or coastal storm surges. Rising seas are swallowing low-lying land in countries such as Bangladesh and India.

Nature adapts to survive climate change

While the climate change discussion in Washington is moving at a glacial pace, nature is responding to climate change at record speed. The animal, plant and insect kingdoms aren’t interested in public policy. They don’t read political blogs. They adapt because they have to. They must change to survive.

We would be wise to heed the signs.

Animals, plants and even insects are now adapting quickly to shifts in temperatures, often by migrating to cooler climates, modifying their diets and altering breeding cycles.

This is happening at blinding speed in large, complex ecosystems. Throughout most of the 20th century, for example, tree range shift occurred at about 0.4 miles a year. Since 1990, however, climate changes have caused species range to move by an average of 12 miles a year. A 2009 U.S. Forest Service study, tracking 40 major tree species in 30 Eastern states, concluded that tree ranges had moved, on average, more than 60 miles north in less than a century.

The best solution for climate change is a carbon tax

With Lisa Jackson, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, stepping down, President Barack Obama is losing one of the few people left in Washington who was willing to speak up about global warming and to push for significant measures to curb its impact. During her tenure, Ms. Jackson was frequently denounced by GOP members of Congress and all too often reined in by Obama. Despite his and Congress’ failure to pass legislation addressing global warming, Ms. Jackson advanced a regulatory agenda to pick up some of the slack.

She managed to see that fuel efficiency standards will increase by 2025, enact stricter pollution controls that must be met before any construction of new coal-fired power plants, and established EPA’s “endangerment finding,” bringing carbon dioxide and five other greenhouse gases (GHGs) under the Clean Air Act. Her departure, however, highlights the failings of the Obama administration to address global warming in a significant way. In his second term, the president can change that by pushing to enact a carbon tax.

A carbon tax would place a fee on polluters that emit GHGs like carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. It should be applied at major sources of GHG emissions: coal-fired power plants, petroleum refineries and importers, natural gas processors, and cement, steel, and GHG-intensive chemical plants. This tax would prod us away from dirty fossil fuels and toward clean energy alternatives to avert global warming while raising considerable revenue.

D.C.’s clean-energy conundrum

Few issues are now as politically polarizing as the role of government in supporting clean-energy technologies. It pits those concerned about global warming against climate science skeptics; those who see government playing a role in shaping a new industry against those who support a free-market approach; and clean-technology funders and technologists against incumbent energy interests.

These debates only heated up during the presidential campaign, as promises of new clean-technology jobs faced off against reports of failed green technology companies. For some, “clean energy” is synonymous with “government overreach.”

Yet the need is great for domestic energy production that is reliable, safe and affordable. The United States needs innovative solutions that help Americans use energy more wisely.

from The Great Debate UK:

How social media can play a major role in disaster forecasting and recovery

--Julian Hunt is Visiting Professor at Delft University of Technology and the Malaysian Commonwealth Studies Centre. Joy Pereira is Deputy Director of SEADPRI, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. The opinions expressed are their own.--

The UN Climate Change Summit in Qatar will be negotiating levels of funding for adaptation against climate change. Social media, which can reduce impacts of disasters through community involvement and improved real-time management, must receive effective and rapid use of such funds.

Social media is increasingly joining public broadcasts and targeted radio messages as a means for central organisations, including government, to communicate forecasts and advisory information to people in affected areas ahead of a disaster, and effective advice during and after one.

Obama’s climate change quandary

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.

from The Great Debate UK:

Strong storms could be even more dangerous in future

--Lord Hunt is a Visiting professor at Delft University, and former Director-General of the UK Met Office. The opinions expressed are his own.--

Sandy has been called, by some, the ‘perfect storm’ and the storm of the century’.  But there are reasons to believe that strong storms could be even more dangerous in the future.

Normally, if storms move inland they lose strength rapidly. However, in this case Sandy met a cold front to the North West and high pressure to the North East.  It is because of these interactions that the winds and rain extended over such a wide area; although the storm was downgraded from a hurricane to a post-tropical cyclone just before making landfall, the geographic spread remained around 800-900 miles wide from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes and the Mid-West.  Moreover, some winds remained sustained at around 80 miles per hour.

Time for GOP to stop denying climate change

Society, throughout history, has embraced “truths” later revealed to be false: The Earth is flat, the Sun revolves around the Earth and, now, climate change is a hoax. Strong evidence – including the fact that the Arctic ice melt has reached the lowest point in history – shows that climate change is real. Yet Republican members of Congress still refuse to take meaningful steps to address what can be done to protect our planet from this growing threat.

The first eight months of 2012 were the hottest on record since record keeping began in 1895. June, July and August produced the third-hottest summer ever recorded. The nation as a whole is averaging 4 degrees Fahrenheit above the average temperature for the year– a full degree higher than in 2006, which, until now, had the hottest first eight months of any year.

We are experiencing the effects of these ever-more-extreme conditions daily. This summer, 40 out of 50 states had drought-designated counties with conditions severe enough to be eligible for federal aid. Almost two-thirds of the nation experienced moderate to severe drought conditions, a 30 percent increase from last year, when one-third of the country witnessed such conditions. Even more staggering, 80 percent of our agricultural land has been affected by drought, which means higher food prices at a time when Americans are already under financial strain.

Waffling on climate change? Consult friends, not science

Ever since climate scientist James Hansen first testified before Congress about global warming in 1988, the scientists, advocates, academics and former vice-presidents who work to stop climate change have presumed that the science matters. Hansen began his testimony by telling the assembled senators: “The earth is warmer in 1988 than at any time in the history of instrumental measurements,” in full confidence that instrumental measurements would matter more than the weather outside the politicians’ front doors. Like Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, Hansen depended on graphs (he called them “viewgraphs”) and numbers to help make his case. Almost two decades later, when Gore first raised the alarm about climate change with his documentary, his strategy rested on that same science: I dare you to look at this PowerPoint and tell me climate change isn’t a problem! It is an expectedly rational assumption to make, that a rational science like science should be a trump card. Inconveniently, it’s not true.

A study published last week in Nature Climate Change, a leading, meticulously vetted journal of climate research, showed that the more scientifically literate people are, the less worried they are about climate change. “As respondents’ science-literacy scores increased, concern with climate change decreased,” wrote the study’s authors, a group that includes researchers from Ohio State, George Washington University and Yale University.

The decrease is small, but what’s telling is that the researchers didn’t come up with the opposite result. You’d expect to see that as scientific literacy increased, so should the sense that climate change is a serious problem. That, after all, is what scientists have assumed in their warnings for more than two decades.

Painting Bill Clinton’s “white roofs” into reality

By Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza
The opnions expressed are his own. White Roofs Project volunteers paint the roof of the Bowery Mission in New York City. Photo courtesy of David Epstein.

If you’ve been outside recently, you probably realize that this summer is hot. With the latest heat wave now spreading across the country, it’s worth pointing out that many Americans are unknowingly contributing to the soaring temperatures. How? Millions of rooftops in America are made of black tar; and they absorb and trap an enormous amount of heat during the summer months. It’s also worth pointing out that there’s an easy fix to the black roofs problem that people of all political stripes can get behind: paint the black roofs white.

Painting black tar roofs with a white, solar-reflective coating is a low cost, quick and tangible way to reduce the risk of power grid ‘brown-outs’, save millions of dollars in energy costs, and curb climate change. The statistics are as simple as they are staggering: A roof covered with solar-reflective white paint reflects up to 90% of sunlight as opposed to the 20% reflected by a traditional black roof. On a 90°F day, a black roof can be up to 180°F. That heat has a major impact on interior building temperature, potentially heating your room to between 115 – 125°F. A white roof stays a cool 100°F. Plus the inside of the building stays cooler than the air outdoors, around 80°F in this example, reducing cooling costs.

White roofs also reduce the “urban heat island” effect in which temperatures rise in dense urban areas because of the proliferation of heat-radiating, black tar surfaces. For example, the Urban Heat Island effect causes New York City to be about 5 degrees warmer than surrounding suburbs and accounts for 5 to 10 percent of summer electricity use.

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