Stephen Gottlieb: Climate Change Is Under Our Noses And Our Feet

Jul 9, 2019

While the Administration in Washington cuts staff at EPA,[1] it’s a good time to reassess efforts to save the climate that makes our life possible.

When we moved to Albany forty years ago people told us winters were hard here. Snow was heavy and stayed. Our yard had two feet of snow piled on it continuously for most of the winter. That hasn't happened now for decades. Instead we get much more violent storms. I've had to console my secretary and others in the office when their towns were largely swept away. That wasn’t the pattern when we first came either. Global warming is right under our noses and our feet. And it's already changing our lives.

It no longer makes sense to wait and see. People who’ve been studying this for decades are clearly right. The climate is changing, causing damage and will only get worse. Equally clear, we’re a major cause. Whatever else may contribute to the problem, we know the carbon humans produce, and the impact of carbon, methane and other greenhouse gasses, enough to identify the quantity of carbon in the atmosphere and the warming effects on the ground. All the measurement and data are just about confirmation and refinement so that we can model the speed.

Speed – it’s happening fast. The earth reinforces the trend. As the atmosphere warms, we lose glaciers that reflect heat back and we lose forests that absorb heat.

So what does it mean to deny the obvious? For powerful people who should know better, it means they’re lying and pursuing personal gain at everyone else’s expense. Conservatives, and their religious supporters, used to judge candidates by how they treat their families. That never made much sense to me – treating one’s family well can mean treating everyone else selfishly. Our children and grandchildren will be seriously affected by climate change. Maybe the rich and powerful figure they can provide a golf course for all their children and grandchildren. But as the world boils, they too will reap the whirlwind. It’s hard to believe their selfishness toward their own families.

I know I’ve described before my conversation with a very successful engineer whose home is only eight feet above sea level. But I want to drive home how interconnected we are in dealing with climate change. Everybody for himself doesn’t work. This engineer wouldn’t move to higher ground because the city wouldn’t function if the water rose that eight feet. The infrastructure would flood. The roads would be under water. They’d have to move again. Coming upstate where land and homes are hundreds of feet above sea level wouldn’t help. I’d seen the pain Irene and Sandy caused on high upstate ground so I knew that wouldn’t solve the problems of global warming, or from the violent the storms fed by a warming climate. But an eight foot sea rise would make coastal cities unusable, and the refugees from those floods would overwhelm the rest of us, overwhelm us the way Sutter’s Mill in California was overwhelmed after the discovery of gold was announced – Sutter never had a chance to protect his property.

In other words, we’re all in this together, and the best way to care for our own is to care for each other before it’s too late, to slow and stop the warming of the climate. We each have a role – voting for people who won’t just talk about but actually help us deal with the problem; and do our part in smaller ways, in our purchases and daily practices.

[1]The EPA Can’t Stop Polluters When the Trump Administration Cuts Enforcement Staff (Union of Concerned Scientists, September 13, 2018).

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

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