Green New Deal drives home need to start think­ing big on cli­mate change

The Buffalo News - - OPINION - Washington Post Writ­ers Group

WASHINGTON – Let’s con­sider some real news, for a change: Last year was of­fi­cially pro­claimed the fourth-warm­est on record; sci­en­tists pre­dict that melt­ing ice in Antarc­tica and Green­land could not only raise sea lev­els but fur­ther desta­bi­lize weather pat­terns; and pro­gres­sive mem­bers of Con­gress are propos­ing a “Green New Deal,” the first pol­icy frame­work am­bi­tious enough to meet the chal­lenge of global warm­ing.

Please don’t stop read­ing. I know that cli­mate change isn’t the sex­i­est of top­ics. I could be writ­ing about Pres­i­dent Trump’s lat­est tweet­storm, or the shade he was thrown by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the State of the Union speech, or the black­face and sex­u­alas­sault scan­dals that could force Vir­ginia’s top three of­fi­cials to re­sign, or Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren’s on­go­ing racial-iden­tity cri­sis, or the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee’s new in­ves­ti­ga­tion of some anoma­lous Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion deals that in­volved huge and un­ex­plained amounts of cash.

Those are all big and im­por­tant sto­ries, but cli­mate change is the big­gest, most im­por­tant story of our time. Our grand­chil­dren and great­grand­chil­dren will judge us by how well we meet the chal­lenge, and so far we are fail­ing. Mis­er­ably.

Sci­en­tists from NASA an­nounced Wed­nes­day that 2018 was the earth’s fourth-warm­est year since record-keep­ing be­gan about 140 years ago. The warm­est year of all was 2016, fol­lowed in or­der by 2017 and 2015; the fifth-warm­est was 2014. Any­one who is not de­lib­er­ately be­ing ob­tuse can see the pat­tern.

Why is it so hot? Be­cause hu­mankind has in­creased the con­cen­tra­tion of car­bon diox­ide in the at­mos­phere by a stag­ger­ing 40 per­cent since the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion. There is now more of the heat-trap­ping gas in the air than at any time in at least the past 800,000 years. Re­searchers have looked in vain for any “nat­u­ral” phe­nom­e­non or cy­cle that could ex­plain the car­bon buildup and the rapid warm­ing. Yet global car­bon emis­sions are at an all-time high.

Any­one tempted to shrug – or even cheer, given the bru­tal cold that much of the na­tion suf­fered last month – is whistling past the grave­yard. Sea-level rise, in part caused by the fact that warmer wa­ter takes up more space than cooler wa­ter, has al­ready wors­ened coastal flood­ing around the world and threat­ened to erase low-ly­ing is­lands from the map. Now at­ten­tion has shifted to the po­lar re­gions, where the warm­ing process is pro­ceed­ing most rapidly and ice is melt­ing at an un­prece­dented pace.

Hardly a month goes by with­out some alarm­ing new re­port about ac­cel­er­ated melt­ing in Antarc­tica and the var­i­ous apoc­a­lyp­tic sce­nar­ios that might come true. A pa­per pub­lished Wed­nes­day in the jour­nal Na­ture sug­gests that a phe­nom­e­non known as “marine ice cliff in­sta­bil­ity” might not pro­duce as much ad­di­tional sea level rise as a 2016 pa­per had pre­dicted. But a sec­ond Na­ture pa­per warned that melt­ing ice in Antarc­tica, Green­land and the Hi­malayas could se­ri­ously dis­rupt weather and tem­per­a­ture pat­terns world­wide.

That’s the true na­ture of the sci­en­tific de­bate over cli­mate change.

It’s not about whether global warm­ing is tak­ing place or what’s caus­ing it – those ques­tions are set­tled. The open question is whether the ef­fects of hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change will be re­ally bad, cat­a­stroph­i­cally bad or threat-to-civ­i­liza­tion bad.

En­ter the res­o­lu­tion, in­tro­duced Thurs­day by Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., call­ing on Con­gress to cre­ate a Green New Deal.

Pelosi has sounded skep­ti­cal. “It will be one of sev­eral or maybe many sug­ges­tions that we re­ceive,” she said Wed­nes­day, ac­cord­ing to Politico. “The green dream or what­ever they call it, no­body knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”

I’m more im­pressed than the speaker is, how­ever. The point of the res­o­lu­tion is not to pro­pose spe­cific, de­tailed pol­icy pre­scrip­tions. What it does ac­com­plish, though, is lay out the enor­mous scale of the cli­mate change prob­lem – and, as a com­men­su­rate re­sponse, call for “a new na­tional, so­cial, in­dus­trial and eco­nomic mo­bi­liza­tion on a scale not seen since World War II and the New Deal.”

The res­o­lu­tion’s goal is to re­duce net U.S. car­bon emis­sions to zero through a “10-year na­tional mo­bi­liza­tion.” Such a cru­sade, as en­vi­sioned, would cre­ate jobs and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment while at the same time safe­guard­ing the bio­sphere. Yes, pro­pos­als such as “up­grad­ing all ex­ist­ing build­ings in the United States” and “spurring mas­sive growth in clean man­u­fac­tur­ing” and “over­haul­ing trans­porta­tion sys­tems” sound like pie in the sky. But that’s the scale of the cri­sis.

Sooner or later, we’re go­ing to have to go big on cli­mate change. So let’s start think­ing big.

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