NATIONAL JOURNAL 06/17/13
By Michael Shank
With carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration at 400 parts per million, Science Magazine reporting that the earth is warming much faster than previously thought, and a Government Accountability Office report citing the “high risks” that global warming poses to federal infrastructure and financing, it feels like it’s too late to tackle global warming. Take heart, it’s not too late. But Congress must act and quickly, and there is plenty of public polling and scientific data to back them up if they decide to act.
As the nonpartisan GAO noted, climate change — and its possible financial impact on federal infrastructure, flood and crop insurance, state assistance and disaster aid provisions — is now a “high risk” area, on par with other Pentagon-level security risks. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee drew early attention to GAO’s report, with Democratic ranking member Elijah Cummings calling for hearings on the issue. Even Committee Chair Darrell Issa showed concern with the lack of government readiness, implying an acknowledgment that climate change is, in fact, happening. This is a good start. But it’s not enough.
We thought it was bad now, with the hottest 12 years on record occurring in the past 15 years, but we haven’t seen anything on par with what awaits us. The GAO is unequivocal about the science, citing the latest 2013 report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The program, involving 13 federal agencies, released its third National Climate Assessment in January, predicting a worst-case scenario of an increase of more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit within the century. As examples of the financially untenable nature of climate change, GAO cites everything from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s $20 billion unpaid bill to U.S. Treasury (as part of an $80 billion bill for 2004-2011 disasters), to the Flood Insurance Program’s outdated mapping system, to the 30 U.S. military installations that already are at risk due to rising sea levels.
GAO recommends short-term adaptation by “raising river or coastal dikes to protect infrastructure from sea level rise, building higher bridges, and increasing the capacity of storm water systems.” The heaviest haul in the long term, however, will be in lowering the carbon emissions causing climate change. That means a federal diet of conservation, energy efficiency, renewable energy and emission caps. That means smart growth and smart grids. That means reducing the carbon emissions per capita in this country, which has one of the highest rates in the world at 20 tons per American per year. Contrast ours with China’s 5 tons per person or India’s nearly 2 tons per person.
These necessary risk-reduction measures might be costly, says GAO, but the cost of inaction will be much greater. Hurricane Sandy alone cost the federal government $60 billion, and that didn’t even cover the entire New York and New Jersey disaster tab. With increasing severity and frequency of droughts, storms and floods, these costs will only increase.
While a federal roadmap on climate is finally taking shape to deal with these risks, it’s primarily at the analytical level. The U.S. Global Change Research Program is developing a “one-stop shop” for climate data collection and sharing. This is necessary. But what we really need now, as the GAO has already recommended, is a one-stop federal shop for climate action, spanning multiple government agencies.
Once that’s established, then the only obstacle is political will, a not insignificant obstacle. The majority of America believes that climate change is happening, that it’s anthropogenic and that we should do something about it (even supporting a carbon tax) — an impressive feat in light of the fact that mainstream media, hungry for a fight, has focused on the conflict between climate skeptics and climate science, irrespective of overwhelming consensus in the scientific community. Be they environmentalists, evangelicals, business leaders, defense department officials or health practitioners, most major constituencies in this country, barring the fossil fuel industry, are now on board.
Now it’s up to policymakers to represent the public. Let’s see if they can stand up to the heavily subsidized fossil fuel industry. If it’s about the money, this should be an easy enough fix in light of the lucrative renewable energy industries that await us in solar, wind, biomass and other. If it’s about the jobs, we’ve got ample infrastructure to build. The systems in place are not renewable nor are they sustainable. A greener economy is waiting for us; now it’s up to us to seize it before some other country does.
Michael Shank, Ph.D., is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.