Blair Horner: Fighting Climate Change Must Remain A Front Burner Issue | WAMC

Blair Horner: Fighting Climate Change Must Remain A Front Burner Issue

Nov 16, 2020

As the nation – and the world – tries to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, the fight to combat the ongoing climate catastrophe caused by global warming must be a priority. 

One crisis threatens tens of millions of people, the other threatens civilization itself.

Decisions must be made immediately to limit the damage caused by global warming – damages that the world is already experiencing.  The world must act now. 

A scientific study released last week argues that even if greenhouse gas emissions – those created by the burning of oil, gas and coal – were reduced to zero, global temperatures will continue to rise for centuries to come.  The report, published in the British scientific journal Scientific Reports, projects that the world is already past the point of no return for global warming. 

The study predicts that by the year 2500, the planet's temperatures will be about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were in 1850.  And sea levels will be roughly 8 feet higher.

The report contends that global temperatures could continue to increase after human-caused greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced due to the continued melting of Arctic ice, increased water vapor in the warmer air, and the perpetual release of carbon dioxide from permafrost melt.

While there is no scientific disagreement that the world is experiencing harmful climate changes, some experts have challenged the report’s “doomsday” scenario.  These experts push back by saying that the predicted catastrophes can still be averted – if aggressive actions are taken now.

However dire the situation is, the report underscores the need to fundamentally reduce humanity’s reliance on fossil fuels to power the world.  The world must collectively act to shift investments away from old, dirty, forms of producing energy to new, green, energy sources.

And the report comes at a critical time in American politics.  The United States is the leading power in the world and leadership in taking on the climate crisis is sorely in need.  The Trump Administration’s approach to global warming was to tear up global treaties, undermine the science, muzzle the experts, and kowtow to the political power of the oil, gas and coal industries. 

While the incoming Biden Administration promises to rely on experts and to fill the leadership vacuum created by the Trump Administration’s willful opposition to sensible climate policies, it’s still too early to tell how this will all play out.

The Trump Administration walked out of the global Paris Agreement that pledged the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The incoming Biden Administration says it will rejoin the plan, which has been signed by 188 countries.  But the Paris Agreement will not solve the problem; it is essentially a promise to do better, not a worldwide, enforceable, action plan.

While the Biden Administration has pledged to follow the advice of climate experts, the President-elect’s inconsistent statements on allowing the expanded drilling of fracked gas, for example, could conflict with the science.  The world’s experts have made clear that the world must stop the expansion of the use of fossil fuels and instead cut back.  Expanding fossil fuel infrastructure – that effectively commit the nation to rely on fracked gas and oil for decades to come – merely accelerates climate carnage.

Instead, the nation should shift its support from oil and gas exploration to one that relies on energy efficiency and green sources of power.  And it should do so by shifting taxpayer support for the oil, gas and coal industries – the industries that have made global warming pollution possible.  For example, according to the International Monetary Fund, the U.S. spent $650 billion in fossil fuel subsidies in one year – far more than it invests in green technologies.  Here in New York, millions are doled out in tax expenditures to subsidize fossil fuel usage.

Without doubt the nation is in the grips of serious crises.  But we must keep global warming at the top of the list of items for urgent, immediate action.  As the nation grapples with how to balance its public health, environmental, and infrastructure needs, it should reduce support for the fossil fuel industry, eliminate those subsidies, and make those most responsible for the anti-science policies that have put us in this situation pay their fair share to unwind the damage they knowingly caused.

After all, it was – and is – the oil, gas and coal industries that provided the political and public relations muscle to attack science and install their cronies into running governments.  It’s now time for them to pay for the damages that they have caused.  It’s now time for the polluters to pay up.

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.