Taken as a whole, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time.
– Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Regardless of your political affiliation, you should be concerned about the increasing threat of climate change. And you should be even more concerned that it is an issue that has been completely disregarded by the Obama and Romney campaigns. It is high time that we hold them both politically accountable.
Anthropogenic climate change refers to significant climate changes (e.g. temperature, precipitation, or wind) that last for an extended period of time (decades or longer). Although scientists have long suspected a connection between increasing global temperatures and human activity, consensus surrounding this issue is of relatively recent origin. In 1996, for example, the Congressional Research Service (CRS), citing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), noted that “the vast majority of knowledgeable scientists” could not affirm the “‘smoking gun,’which would indicate that humans are indeed the cause of recent climate change and would be responsible for future global warming.”
Today, however, scientific opinion has firmly coalesced around the conclusion that climate change is anthropogenic. In 2001, just five years following the CRS’s report, the National Academy of Sciences determined that “[g]reehnouse gases [GHGs] are accumulating in earth’s atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise.” More recently, in 2010, 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences recently stated that “[t]he planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gasses in our atmosphere . . . Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.”
- Rising Sea Levels. Global sea levels rose nearly 6.7 inches (17 centimeters) in the last century. Two primary factors contributed to the observed rise in sea levels across the planet: (1) thermal expansion (i.e., as the ocean warms, it expands), and (2) changes in the mass of water in the ocean after ocean water is exchanged with land stores (e.g., water frozen in glaciers or ice sheets). Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore should take note: sea level rise on the U.S. East Coast has accelerated three to four times faster than the global average.
- Climbing Temperatures. The Earth has been warming since 1890, but most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s. In fact, 10 of the warmest 12 years in recorded history have occurred within the past 20 years. And in July 2012, the average temperature in the United States was 77.6 degrees, making it the warmest month since the government began keeping temperature records in 1895. At the end of July, 63 percent of the U.S. was experiencing drought conditions, something that scientists agree will become more common as the Earth continues to warm.
- Ocean Acidification. Since the Industrial Revolution, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased 30 percent. The BBC has reported that “[m]an-made pollution is raising ocean acidity at least 10 times faster than previous thought.” And providing increased urgency to the problem is the fact that “[o]cean acidification is irreversible on timescales of at least tens of thousands of years.”
- Warming Oceans. Earth’s oceans contain 1.34 billion km3 of water (97 percent salt water, 2 percent ice, 1 percent fresh water). The Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic and Southern oceans cover 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, and serve a critical role in managing our planet’s temperature by absorbing, storing, and slowly releasing quantities of heat. As the planet has warmed, the ocean has absorbed much of the increased heat, and since 1989 the top 2,300 feet (700 meters) have warmed 0.302 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Declining Ice Sheets and Melting Glaciers. The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets continue to lose mass. Montana’s Glacier National Park will disappear by the year 2020, sooner than previous estimates that predicted that it would last until 2030. The large Antarctic glacier is thinning 4 times faster than it was 10 years ago, causing one scientist to remark that although “[w]e’ve known that it’s been out of balance for some time, but nothing in the natural world is lost at an accelerating exponential rate like this glacier.” And the Arctic ice cap is melting at such a rate that experts are “having a hard time conceiving a situation that could reverse the trends.” As one scientist remarked, the loss of the Arctic ice cap, known as the Earth’s “air-conditioner,” does not just mean “that [the] polar bears might go extinct, or that native communities might have to adapt, which we’re already seeing – there are larger climate effects.”
Rapid climate change will have severe consequences to human health and well-being. Given the severity of the problems we will face if climate change is not curbed, from the extinction of species to the increased frequency of severe weather events, it is a failure of political leadership that the major party candidates for the presidency, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, have disregarded the issue in their political campaigns.
To its credit, the Obama Administration has targeted climate change, for example, by doubling fuel economy standards for automobiles and by pumping billions of taxpayer dollars into clean energy. And in his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, Obama pointedly noted that “climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future.” However, President Obama has shown no urgency to act on the issue. Obama has displayed no moral courage to use his voice to provide a plan of action.
Meanwhile, the Mitt Romney campaign continues to belittle climate change as a national emergency and cast doubt as to its root cause. Romney, in his book “No Apology,” wrote that “I believe that climate change is occurring” and that “human activity is a contributing factor.” But as the 2012 Republican nominee, Romney changed course, arguing, “We don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.”
Romney’s now “skeptical” stance on climate change is more consistent with his Republican colleagues, who often argue that climate change is a “hoax.” Republican Senator James Inhofe, for example, has repeatedly argued that “climate change is a hoax and it is arrogant for people to believe human beings are able to change what god is doing in the climate.” Inhofe, it should be noted, is the author of “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future” and has received $1.3 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry. Just last week, the Republican controlled house passed the Stop the War on Coal Act, H.R. 3409, by a 233-175 margin, a bill that would overturn or prevent environmental regulations that Republicans argue will harm the economy. And of the 40 references to climate science on Fox News from February to July 2012, 37 of the references (93 percent) were “misleading,” either broadly dismissing the scientific consensus or obfuscating accurate information with misleading claims, whereas only 3 of the references (7 percent) were characterized as “accurate.”
Although only about 7 percent of likely voters have not decided whether they will vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, in the 2012 election, 61 percent of the undecided voters view climate change as an “important issue.” In their convention speeches, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney repeatedly said that we have a choice in this election. And our decision in November will undoubtedly affect the United States’ approach to climate change over the next four years. Unfortunately, however, our current choice is between an incumbent president who has buried his head in the sand and showed little urgency to act, and a Republican challenger who promotes ignorance, scientific illiteracy and anti-intellectualism as virtuous traits. It is a derogation of duty for the media (print and television) to ignore this pressing issue.
On an issue as important as climate change, the American people deserve a robust debate between competing ideas and approaches. We are not getting such a debate, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that it will be up to We the People to hold both candidates accountable.