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Preventing More Climate Impacts in the United States

08-01-2009 // Larry Schweiger

LONG RECORDED in numerous science journals that are accessible only to a few, the fast-emerging impacts of climate change in the United States are now clear. Physical evidence is now overwhelming and made more accessible for all to see thanks to a new report titled Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. The report describes an enemy that will wreak havoc on our coastal communities, damage thousands of miles of interstate highways and key commercial ports and energy sources; an enemy that will harm our food production and limit our water supplies. It is an enemy that will cause increased deaths.

As with any enemy that threatens our national security, we must mobilize our best forces to combat this threat. The enemy is global warming, and it has infiltrated every region of our country. How dramatic the impacts will be depends on how swiftly and decisively we act.

The report, authored by a team of 31 U.S. climate experts from 13 federal agencies, provides the best available synthesis of climate impacts in the United States. It is available at www.globalchange.gov/usimpacts.

The report makes clear that something momentous has already been taking place in the polar regions, in circumpolar forests and on glaciated mountaintops throughout the planet. Yet most Americans have little inkling of the enormous risks we are taking by ignoring dangerous climate changes.

When a pot on the stove is boiling over, who would propose turning the heat up further? Yet the Earth is clearly “boiling over” with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at 387 parts per million—36 percent higher than preindustrial levels. The accepted thinking among policy makers, based more on political expediency than on scientific considerations, is that we can continue to allow atmospheric CO2 concentrations to creep up to 450 ppm or even to 550 ppm before we slowly begin to reduce atmospheric concentrations 30 to 40 years from now.

Wishful thinking is dangerous. Yet because of difficult and entrenched fossil fuel politics, this is exactly where policy makers are heading with pending plans that allow the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to continue to climb.

Until more Americans demand bolder actions, we will be stuck with slow reductions while the planet is clearly picking up its pace of change. This is currently true of even the best legislative policies advanced in Washington, D.C., as well as the discussions underway for the upcoming Copenhagen international treaty negotiations to update and replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

The choice we now face is to accept legislation that by every measurement will get us started but will not in itself end global warming fast enough, or to oppose its passage as some environmentalists have suggested and continue to do nothing to address this urgent threat. At the time of this writing, the National Wildlife Federation has chosen to support the American Clean Energy and Security Act as a first-step bill over continued delay. We need legislation that will help America build a clean energy economy with stronger clean energy goals that will create millions of jobs, and we need to protect EPA’s authority to cut pollution from dirty old coal plants faster. But at the end of the day, we need to pass energy and climate legislation so we can work towards a new international agreement to cut carbon pollution.

In ancient times, when cities were the protectorate, watchmen were posted in strategic towers along the outer walls, where they could see great distances and give early warning of an invading army. In this modern world, scientists in the fields of climate, health, and ecology are our watchmen. They have an important purpose: looking out as far as they can see and reporting any danger that may be on our horizon. Our watchmen have been alert and they have spoken clearly about global warming—repeatedly, for decades.

Our duty is to listen to scientists and to take action to avoid the greatest planetary challenge that has ever confronted humankind. A failure to heed warnings today will lead to major tragedies tomorrow. History is bound to repeat itself if we do not change course. You can be the change we need. Go to www.nwf.org/globalwarming and sign up to help NWF persuade our lawmakers to act. Together, we must find the courage and determination to confront the malignancy of climate change.

This text is excerpted from Larry Schweiger’s new book Last Chance: Saving Life on Earth, to be released in September by Fulcrum Publishing. All proceeds will go to NWF conservation work.

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