Americans Are Calling for Climate Action, and the New House Leadership Is Listening
By Rhea Suh
Wednesday marked a watershed moment in the national fight against the growing dangers of climate change, with two governors—a southern Democrat and a northeastern Republican—kicking off the first of a raft of hearings on the central environmental challenge of our time.
Appearing before the House Natural Resources Committee, Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina and Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts laid out the stakes, for the people of their states and for the country, in standing up to this global scourge, in a hearing aptly titled "Climate Change: Impacts and the Need to Act."
The same morning, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change hosted its first climate hearing in six years, focusing on the environmental and economic effects of our warming planet.
You read that right: The Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change hadn't held a climate hearing in six years. That's an appalling abdication of responsibility by Republican leaders in Congress and their banner carrier, President Trump, who delivered another disappointing State of the Union address last night without once mentioning the mounting perils of climate change.
No one is surprised, but let's be clear. A president who ignores threats that gather before our very eyes is failing at job one for any leader: to prepare our people for a brighter, more hopeful, and more secure tomorrow.
A great tide, though, is turning. In the House, where Trump delivered his speech, new leadership is listening to the American people, about seven in ten of whom understand the growing dangers of climate change and expect national action to fight it.
Wednesday's climate hearings are the first of nearly a dozen already scheduled in the House or expected in the weeks ahead. The link between climate change and ocean health is the focus of a hearing Thursday afternoon before the Committee on Natural Resources' Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife. And climate change will be very much on the agenda when the Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development holds a hearing Thursday morning on "Energy Trends and Outlook." Among the witnesses: Amy Myers Jaffe, program director for energy security and climate change with the Council on Foreign Relations, and Ethan Zindler, head of Americas and policy analysis for Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
The House Natural Resources Committee is making a major push to frame up the environmental justice aspects of the climate debate, with a stress on whose stories are being heard, whose are being ignored, and how all voices might be raised. With that approach being emphasized at the level of the full committee, the subcommittees—Federal Lands; Energy and Mineral Resources; Indian, Insular, and Alaska Native Affairs; Oversight and Investigations; and Water, Power, and Oceans—are each planning climate hearings to address areas of their specific jurisdiction.
These hearings are important. They provide a way for our political leaders and the American people to connect the dots between what the science is telling us about climate change and what we're reading about in our papers, watching on our televisions, and seeing out our kitchen windows. And they provide expert guidance to policymakers searching for solutions to this overarching environmental challenge.
We just wrapped up the hottest four years since global record keeping began in 1880, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration reported Wednesday morning. The impacts are all around us. Seas are rising. Croplands are turning to deserts. We're losing entire species faster than at any other time since the dinosaurs disappeared some 60 million years ago. Storms, floods and wildfires are raging. The Great Barrier Reef is dying.
All of this will get worse—much worse—unless we cut the dangerous carbon pollution that's driving this global scourge. And we haven't got much time.
That's why NRDC is so excited about the movement to create a Green New Deal, a comprehensive slate of policies aimed at helping us shift, as quickly as possible, to 100 percent clean energy in a way that provides a just and equitable transition away from the dirty fuels of the past and to cleaner, smarter ways to power our future.
Developing a Green New Deal will take time. Some of the broad contours will start to take shape, though, in the form of a joint House-Senate resolution being crafted by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). We're thrilled by the new urgency and the new ideas behind this national movement for change, and we look forward to seeing an ambitious plan.
What's coming together is a national call to action for the policies we need in order to rapidly move to a thriving clean-energy economy that creates millions of high-quality American jobs, reduces inequality and poverty, and safeguards our communities from environmental harm. Every American needs to get behind the growing momentum for climate action that will capture the urgency of the moment, rise to the challenge we face and promote the low-carbon transition we need.
We must press for congressional action that enables the country to keep the promise we made as part of the landmark 2015 Paris agreement. We cannot break that promise and leave our children to pay the price.
And we need to work, through the new House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and all the House committees that have jurisdiction in areas that impact our climate future, to put in place the policies that can help us invest in the just and equitable transition to a clean energy economy.
We're excited to see what unfolds in the coming weeks and months, on Capitol Hill and across the country. What's important is that we seize this moment to build on the growing momentum for action—while we've still got time.
House Democrats Hold First Climate Change Hearings in More Than 5 Years https://t.co/4D2hSxq1Q9— Marjorie Leach-Parker (@Marjorie Leach-Parker)1549547880.0
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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