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Blair Horner: The Other Existential Crisis Keeps Getting Worse

Over the weekend the planet achieved a new milestone:  A small Siberian town hit temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  While that region of the world is noted for its wide range in temperatures, the reading is the highest ever recorded north of the Arctic Circle.

That record temperature was part of a heat wave that is gripping Siberia and has resulted in widespread forest fires.  In one part of Siberia, more than 680,000 acres are burning.

The stunning news of new heat records underscores that the existential crisis posed by a rapidly heating planet is not going away.  We have all been – rightfully – concerned about the out-of-control COVID-19 pandemic and the demands for racial justice in the wake of the George Floyd murder and others.

Unfortunately, the looming climate catastrophe resulting from global warming is not taking a break.  Despite the dramatic reduction in global economic activity due to the worldwide coronavirus shutdown – and the easing of air pollution levels – the planet keeps heating up.  The greenhouse gases emitted from the burning of oil, coal, gas and other sources, continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. 

Of all of legitimate public policy concerns, global warming – and its catastrophic consequences – is at the top of the list.

Scientists already have documented current impacts of climate change:

  • Ice is melting worldwide, especially at the Earth’s poles. This includes mountain glaciers, ice sheets covering West Antarctica and Greenland, and Arctic sea ice. In Montana's Glacier National Park, over the past century the number of glaciers has declined to fewer than 30 from more than 150.
  • Much of the melting ice contributes to sea-level rise. Global sea levels are rising annually and the rise is occurring at a faster rate in recent years.
  • As temperatures change, many species are on the move. Some butterflies, foxes, and alpine plants have migrated farther north or to higher, cooler areas.
  • Precipitation (rain and snowfall) has increased across the globe, on average. Yet some regions are experiencing more severe drought, increasing the risk of wildfires, lost crops, and drinking water shortages.
  • Some species—including mosquitoes, ticks, jellyfish, and crop pests—are thriving. Booming populations of bark beetles that feed on spruce and pine trees, for example, have devastated millions of forested acres in the U.S.

And it will get worse.  According to a report issued last month, if global warming continues unchecked, the temperatures due to arrive later this century in some parts of the world will bring "nearly unlivable" conditions for up to 3 billion people.
Of course, we should demand action to ensure that Black Lives Matter, that the Congress fix the shocking incompetence of the Trump Administration in addressing the pandemic, as well as a host of other issues.

But the decision of the Trump Administration – and its Congressional allies – to ignore the accelerating threat to our habitat that is the most damning of their actions. Immediate steps must be taken to curb that environmental threat.

As an obvious first step, the world must stop the expansion of the use of fossil fuels as a source of power. The looming climate threat is the result of the burning of oil, coal and gas, yet there continue to be proposals to build new infrastructure that would lock in the use of these fuels for additional decades to come.

Secondly, public investments being made today to pave the way toward economic recovery should be focused on ways to reduce the world’s carbon footprint, like investing in renewable forms of power and energy efficiency technologies.

The world must also begin to move away from the existing use of fossil fuels.  No one argues that people need to freeze to death from a lack of heating, or never drive again.  We can build systems that rely on electricity for heating and for powering our vehicles.  Inevitably, most electricity will rely on renewables, thus reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.

In short, the world cannot allow its legitimate concerns over public health and justice to take the pressure off the nation’s leaders to aggressively move to stop the world’s headlong rush toward destruction of the human habitat.

There is no Planet B.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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