A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.
Climate change is real, and there is a very high probability that humans are the driving force behind it.
That simple fact is important and — largely — accepted. Not just by scientists, but by politicians, world leaders and citizens around the globe.
Unfortunately, the realities of climate change and global warming seem to have not been totally accepted here in America. Just this week, the new head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Scott Pruitt, caused a ruckus when he seemed to question the evidence that carbon dioxide emissions contribute to climate change, a widely accepted conclusion by climatologists. Still, Pruitt has conceded that climate change is happening; he's just not sure how much CO2 emissions have to do with it. According to NASA, they are key players.
Pruitt's words raised more questions about how (and if) the Trump administration will work to address climate change. And there's no reason why they shouldn't. Because really, what's the risk of trying to make our environment cleaner?
Some politicians might argue that regulations to the fossil fuel industry hamper our economy. Those politicians also, in almost all cases, receive huge amounts of money from the fossil fuel industry. Others might say it's not the government's job to tell us how much we can pollute or how we should build our cars. On the contrary, I think that's exactly what our government's job is: to create policies and laws that protect the environment, and therefore the citizens, of our country.
Even if it wasn't the government's job to protect our environment, these arguments still lack fortitude under close examination.
Renewable energy is already more cost effective than the fossil fuels that release harmful greenhouse gases when they're burned. Solar and wind energy are now cheaper than new fossil fuel capacity in 30 countries. Solar energy alone is going to cost half the price of electricity from natural gas or coal in the next 20 years.
So, let's assume for a minute that America does reinvent itself and its energy sector.
Let's say we all started riding bikes more, we continued to invest in and manufacture electric cars, we put heavy regulations in place for vehicles' carbon emissions, we built solar panel factories that ran on solar energy, we built wind farms in the vast swathes of uninhabited land, we committed fully to the Paris Climate Agreement, we enforced harsh penalties for polluting rivers, lakes and oceans, and we reduced the number of high-risk oil pipelines while we dredged and cleaned polluted water sources like they've done here in New York City.
What would happen? Would the economy collapse? Would the world come to a screeching halt? Would America stop being America?
I don't think so.
In fact, reinventing our energy sector could be the ultimate jobs creator, the ultimate infrastructure boom. We need to repair our roads, dams and bridges; what if we mandated that those projects be environmentally friendly? What if we designed construction equipment that ran on solar energy? Bridges that were covered in panels? Roadsides that drained and recycled water?
And that could just be the beginning. Imagine if we went beyond just teaching our kids to conserve water, but we taught them that it takes gallons of water to produce a single tomato. Imagine if instead of just teaching them not to litter, we taught them to love the planet. Imagine if we prepared for the worst by being our best. Would we be putting ourselves at risk?
There would probably be a whole host of benefits that we can't even imagine. In England, organizers are putting together a new plan called City of Trees to plant 3 million trees around Manchester. Why? Because they found the presence of trees cleans the air and water, reduces asthma and attention deficit disorder, drops the rate of crime, increases the time people spend in stores, improves rates of healing for hospital patients and reduces stress.
Even though Pruitt's comments may have been worthy of outrage, at least one climate change scientist— Judith Curry — came to his defense to note that there are uncertainty factors in climate science and we should continue to gather evidence.
While that might be true, what is also true is that Americans and people all over the globe are already feeling the effects of climate change.
The basics are clear: according to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2016 was the hottest year ever on record. Not only that, but 2016 marked "the third year in a row to set a new record for global average surface temperatures," according to NASA.
That data paints a darker picture around things like the recent drought in California, which a team of Stanford researchers say is likely to happen more often under today's level of carbon emissions. But it goes beyond that, too: rising sea levels are already engulfing coastal towns across the globe, flooding people out of towns that have existed for centuries. NOAA has tracked increased floods and extreme weather, so if you've been noticing more floods, tornadoes and hurricanes, it's not your imagination. In Africa, several countries are facing crises of famine thanks in part to unusually hot weather that diminishes crops and dries out water supplies. Is addressing these issues something that might end up harming us more than the current state of affairs?
Even here in the United States, an unexpectedly strong February jobs report came with a caveat: unseasonably warm weather had opened the door for more construction and outdoor work in the middle of the winter. But the increased volatility of the labor market doesn't spell good things for our economy in the long term.
The truth is, climate change isn't some far off, potential calamity. It's already here. But it's not too late — the same scientists who believe this issue is dangerous also believe humans can reverse course to buck the trend by voting for politicians willing to address climate change with law, changing their own personal actions, and educating the next generation about climate change.
What's the worst that could happen?
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