Photo Credit: Terray Sylvester/Reuters
Within the science community, there is little debate about the reality of climate change. About 97% of active climate scientists agree that climate change is occurring, and there is a greater than 95% chance that the change has been caused by human activity. Nevertheless, climate change remains a disputed issue in Congressional debates, and its human cause is completely denied by President Trump. Recent weather events, particularly hurricanes, exemplify the severe damage that global warming can create. Denial of and debate about the effects of global warming only postpone large-scale action that could save the environment.
In order to fully accept the reality of global warming, we need to understand why this intensification of weather events can be attributed to anthropogenic warming and not just coincidence. For example, increasingly damaging hurricanes caused by global warming have devastated American communities. The average surface temperature of the oceans has increased about two degrees Celsius since the early 1900s, which has caused catastrophic conditions. Due to warmer sea surface temperatures, precipitation rates and wind speeds can drastically increase within hurricanes. climate scientists predict a two to eleven percent increase in average maximum wind speeds due to warmer ocean temperatures. Furthermore, sea-level rise, which is jointly caused by thermal expansion of the oceans and melting ice sheets and glaciers, could create a 1-4 one-to-four-foot increase in storm surges. Simply put, global warming is fueling hurricanes and the intensity of recent hurricane seasons.
Hurricane seasons can differ in intensity from year to year, but the growing strength and destructiveness of these storms and the increase in named storms has been attributed to anthropogenic climate change . In fact, climatologists have credited the unforeseen force of both Hurricanes Sandy and Harvey to human-induced climate change. Hurricane Sandy, which caused 285 deaths and $62 billion in damages, was called a “once-in-a-lifetime storm event.” Nevertheless, damages from Hurricane Harvey, which occurred five years after, significantly exceeded those of Sandy. Likewise, Hurricane Florence killed over 50 people across three states and created between $17 and $22 billion dollars worth of damages. Even outside of the continental United States, Puerto Rico is still trying to piece together the damaged cities and towns after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Over 11,000 people were living without power in Summer 2018, eight months after the storm initially hit. It took a full eleven months for power to be restored to Puerto Ricans. Moreover, an August 2018 report by the Puerto Rican government counted the death toll at almost 3,000 people -- 46 times higher than the original count. If many key figures in our government, most notably the president, continue to deny that human activity is intensifying these storms, we will see no relief in future hurricane seasons. Acceptance is the first step in taking drastic climate action. Still, hurricanes are only one of the immediate causes of climate-related devastation on human health and infrastructure. An increase in infectious diseases and more frequent food shortages are among other effects that climate change will bring. While significantly reducing our greenhouse gas emissions will not have a noticeable effect on our climate for many years to come, it is still critically important to start building a clean and liveable environment for future generations.
While the United States has seen a lot of damage in the form of hurricanes, it is important to remember that the climate crisis is occurring on a global platform. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published in their 2018 climate report that the atmospheric temperature is predicted to rise by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial temperatures. While temperatures have risen to this degree in the past, this was over 125,000 years ago--far before humans inhabited the planet. Warming this intense could wipe out human civilization as we know it. Among some of the most significant effects, rising sea levels will flood coastal towns, create dangerous health problems (such as starvation and widespread vector-borne disease) and agriculture will become increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain. The IPCC predicts that these damages will cost over $54 trillion to remedy. Nevertheless, the United States is still the second largest contributor of global CO₂ emissions. Therefore, changing American policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may have a significant global effect.
First and foremost, the United States desperately needs an executive that will undo all of President Trump’s environmental policies . Trump and his appointees in the executive branch, such as within the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Environmental Protection Agency, have approved the first offshore oil wells in the Arctic, broken up the air pollution review panel within the Environmental Protection Agency, repealed Obama-era methane regulations, nullified federal regulations for coal plants, weakened vehicular fuel economy rules, and implemented several other detrimental policies such as these.However, simply reversing these policies is not enough. Instead, there needs to be the implementation of policies that would limit greenhouse gas emissions to help the United States fulfil its role in limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius as the IPCC suggests. Some Democrats are even pushing for a “green new deal” which would allow the US to meet the standards put forth by the Paris Agreement. This deal would revolutionize environmental policy as we know it; it would completely decarbonize the economy by 2030 and put massive investments into renewable energies.
Furthermore, the influence of oil and gas companies in congressional elections portends a dark future for environmentalist goals. Oil and gas companies have contributed over $73 billion to candidates running in the 2018 midterm elections, with 87% of those contributions going to Republicans. Oil lobbyists have spent up to $115 million a year in order to perpetuate doubt about climate change. This corporate influence even reaches climate science itself. For example, Exxonmobil has paid several scientists who have made key arguments against the reality of climate change. If the very corporations that are significantly contributing to pollution and climate change continue to have this power over members of Congress, the United States will never enforce necessary oil and gas regulations Inaction on reducing greenhouse gas emissions stands in stark contrast to American attitudes. For example, 82% of Americans support funding research into renewable energy, and 68% support some form of a carbon tax. In order to make sure warming does not surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius the IPCC published a set of recommendations for policy makers. The panel suggests reducing carbon emissions through government regulations and significant carbon taxes. For example, they suggest increasing charges on carbon emissions to three or four times their current price. However, the House of Representatives recently passed a resolution that denounces a carbon tax as detrimental to the US economy.
Luckily, attitudes towards climate change are shifting and American citizens and representatives are beginning to take it far more seriously. While senators such as Ted Cruz (R-Texas) still actively deny that human influence does not affect our climate, the Democratic control of the House of Representatives provides some hope for climate activists. New activists in the House, such as New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are championing environmentalist thought and attempting to take a holistic approach to climate change. Additionally, the Supreme Court refused to block a lawsuit against the federal government for denying the American people’s “constitutional right to a clean environment.” While this may be hopeful, there still needs to be drastic action to remedy the damages that have been done. Plans to completely decarbonize our economy are finally within the potential course of action for Congress, which would keep our environment livable. We are now living at the mercy of our planet, and if emissions continue as they have for the past century, there is little hope that human society can survive.