Address of climate change needed
If an asteroid the size of Los Angeles were hurtling toward Earth, threatening to put an end to life and the very record of its existence, governments would mobilize immediately in an international effort to deflect it. Every country in the world, along with a retinue of top scientists, would rush to the negotiating table, ready to pour entire GDPs into the initiative. No expense would be spared.
Though the unprecedented magnitude of the situation might cause some initial disagreement over the best approach to resolving imminent doom, there is no doubt that we would eventually arrive at an agreed-upon solution. And we would do so rather quickly. Why? Because even though the political and financial costs of such an operation would be astronomically high, the consequences of the alternative, while not entirely understood, would be decisively negative and irreversible.
So why is it that in addressing climate change — a matter of more insidious danger, top political figures are reluctant to adopt policies concurrent with the prevailing science? In its Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) endorsed the unequivocal reality of atmospheric and ocean warming, and for the first time in the IPCC’s existence, declared the extreme likelihood of human influence as the dominant cause of these trends.
The IPCC Report is not anomalous in its conclusions. A 2013 conglomerative study out of the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute considered nearly 12,000 climate science abstracts from peer-reviewed journals, finding overwhelming consensus in the opinion that recent warming is anthropogenic.
Despite what amounts to a smoking gun of scientific evidence, policymakers are still dragging their feet. In the United States, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, recently named chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, continues to deny the very existence of man-made climate change, a manifesto made public in his 2012 book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future.
Of greater offense are politicians like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has publicly acknowledged global warming and human contribution to the phenomenon, has rejected policies that could mitigate the further accumulation of greenhouse gases. In 2011, he vetoed New Jersey’s involvement in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program for carbon emission in the Northeast.
The refusal to take action on climate change isn’t an exclusively American oversight. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott wrote in his political memoir Battlelines that “debate rages among scientists” on the “unknown” and “perhaps even benign” effects of climate change. These views manifested in regressive action last July when the Australian Senate made good on Abbott’s campaign promise to “ax the tax” and repealed the country’s carbon pricing program.
Far too often, high-level officeholders default to the “I am not a scientist” excuse, as if this claim somehow pardons them from enacting responsible legislation. If anything, such a statement necessitates a reliance on scientists. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is currently exploring a run for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, might not have a background in geology or chemistry, but there is no shortage of potential advisers who do. Failure to incorporate their expertise in a policy platform exhibits an inexcusable neglect that will prove inauspicious against the test of time.
Time is the chief adversary in the fight against climate change. As with the hypothetical asteroid tumbling toward Earth, the risk presented by continued warming grows every day. Wildfires, flooding and the devastation of coastal communities by tropical storms and rising seas are amplified by our inaction. Not far from sight, major crop failures and the proliferation of diseases like malaria constitute a direct affront to the sanctity and security of human lives. The costs of mitigation are certainly high, but, as reported by the IPCC, they will only rise if we continue on this sluggish trajectory.
Neglect of the scientific literature amounts to a tremendous disservice on the part of public leaders who identify as climate skeptics. Their resistance to progress puts everybody, including their constituents, in the way of harm. Though rogue asteroids might only be the stuff of science fiction and Earth’s deep past, the occurrence of climate change poses a reality of comparable nature. And this asteroid is growing dangerously close.
Austin Reagan is a junior majoring in environmental studies and political science. His column, “The Scientific Method,” runs Mondays.