Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

Posted on May 9, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday

The grave impact of human-induced climate change is closer to home than most Americans believe. In a comprehensive new study known as the National Climate Assessment, scientists point to the increasing incidence within the United States of torrential rain, flooding, droughts, wildfires and heat waves as evidence of global warming. Carbon emissions from burning fossil-fuels and deforestation are cited as the leading cause of these unpredictable weather patterns across the country. The effects of climate change pose serious challenges to a range of issues, directly impacting agricultural productivity, food security, water quality, and public health. Additionally, climate change threatens infrastructure and destroys fragile ecosystems and biodiversity, among other issues.

In spite of the overwhelming evidence that links the burning of fossil fuels to the accumulation of greenhouse gases and climate change, Americans remain mostly unmoved about the urgency of the problem. In a Pew Research Center survey, only 40 percent of Americans expressed that climate change posed a problem to their country compared to 85 percent of Koreans, 56 percent of Germans and 48 percent of the British. Americans were more worried about financial instability, Islamic extremism and nuclear weapons than environmental issues.

Scientific projections on the impact of global warming on the United States require urgent attention. Using climate models to predict the links between carbon emissions and increase in temperatures, the report shows that the United States is likely to see a rise of 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades even if emissions were drastically cut. Sea levels are also expected to rise, up to six feet by 2100. The environmental threats to people and communities are detailed in a regional breakdown of the country: droughts in California, rising sea levels in Hawaii and Florida, storms and flooding in the east coast, melting glaciers in Alaska and high temperatures in Texas. These effects are likely to worsen if efforts to limit emissions known as “mitigation” or actions to prepare for extreme weather patterns known as “adaptation” are not immediately put into a comprehensive climate change response strategy.

President Obama’s climate action plan includes limits to carbon emissions for coal-firedpower plants, as well as guidelines to limit pollution for new power plants with a goal to cut emissions by 40 percent. However, powerful lobby groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — funded by coal and oil companies — are fighting the new Environmental Protection Agency Regulations to cut greenhouse gases through lawsuits against greater regulations. Fortunately, this week, the Supreme Court upheld the authority of the EPA to regulate pollution from coal on the basis of the Clean Air Act. President Obama has promised to place new limits on carbon dioxide emissions through executive action as a result of the political gridlock in Washington and Congress’s inability to pass legislation. In an announcement this week, Stanford University said it would divest $18.7 billion of its current stock holdings in coal-mining companies; other major universities are likely to follow the new trend of distancing themselves from coal, a major pollutant linked to climate change.

Even if these initiatives take hold, the United States will still have to deal with the problems of climate change. The strategy of adaptation that the federal report emphasizes calls for actions by local, state, regional, national and international bodies to proactively develop strategies for greater flexibility and resilience against a wide variety of climate change-related impacts: conservation of water supplies, protection against vector-borne diseases, enforcing building codes and landscaping ordinances. The goal of adaptation strategies is to reduce vulnerabilities which can be tackled through a combination of “bottom up” community planning and “top down” national strategies.

More scientific information is undoubtedly required to combat carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases, as well as prepare for what some might consider inevitable consequences of climate change as seen in more frequent extreme events. Both the recent National Climate Assessment and the report from United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changeconvey the crisis that climate change represents in stark contrast to American public opinion on the issue. With global warming and rising sea levels a reality everywhere and perceived as a real and urgent threat by people in other nations, it is time for Americans to pay attention to current scientific knowledge on the harmful impacts of carbon emissions and to take the steps required to combat this crisis on nothing less than a war-footing.


The writing and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute or Hunter College.