Domestic Affairs

The Climate Question

By now, most Americans are familiar with the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report from 2017. The findings of the report state that we have until 2050 to reach global carbon neutrality, and we need to be halfway there by 2030. Carbon neutrality is a daunting enough task for a single nation, nevermind getting the whole Earth on board. There is no indication that the targets set forth by the IPCC will be reached in time, if ever. For most of the world, the consequences of climate change are abstract, especially in the developed world, where a high standard of living takes precedence over a distant, immaterial threat. Is a drastically changed climate our fate? Is there any chance the U.S. produces the will to reach carbon neutrality? And what about the rest of the world?

The details of the report predict a grim future if carbon neutrality is not reached by 2050. The global community can expect water scarcity, more severe and more common floods and droughts, and reduced crop and livestock yields. Worse yet, the report only addresses a world where average temperatures have increased by two degrees celsius. Based on current trends, we can expect as much as three degrees celsius of warming by 2100. At that temperature, the effects become not only more severe, but less predictable. To avoid what can only be described as a climate apocalypse, carbon neutrality must be achieved. Nothing short of the greatest concerted effort in human history is required to succeed. This effort starts with the U.S., the third most populous nation with the highest carbon footprint per capita.

The Trump administration showed no interest in working towards carbon neutrality. In fact, Trump and the GOP were more interested in undoing climate policy than anything else. Famously, Trump chose not to comply with the mandates of the Paris Climate Accords, an agreement entered during the Obama administration. The Trump administration has also repealed the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which sought to reduce emissions from our nation’s energy plants. Additionally, President Trump has lowered auto emissions standards, allowing manufacturers to produce less fuel-efficient vehicles. The list goes on. All that is to say, the Republican Party has made it clear that they are uninterested in carbon neutrality. The Democrats, on the other hand, pitch themselves as the party of climate action. As a Democratic Nominee, Joe Biden advertised a climate plan that called for $1.7 trillion dollars over ten years in the pursuit of carbon neutrality. He targets most of the major sources of pollution and promises carbon neutrality “no later than 2050.” Biden’s plan is a start, but can we trust Democrats to act on their claims? What kind of climate legislation did Democrats pass while Barack Obama was president and Joe Biden was vice president? How extensive were their efforts, and did they go far enough?

Not very far, as it turns out. To be fair, during President Obama’s first term in office, the Democrats were tied up with addressing a global recession and pushing healthcare reform and could only devote limited bandwidth to climate change. The only notable climate legislation pushed during his first term was the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which the Republican controlled Senate blocked by simply never voting on the bill. Republican hindrance of climate action became a theme through the Obama years, making it such that executive action was the only viable path forward. At the beginning of his second term, Obama introduced his Climate Action Plan that promised to cut emissions, bolster infrastructure, and “lead international efforts to combat global climate change.” The essence of his climate strategy was death by a thousand cuts, implementing numerous targeted efforts that would fight climate change in specific ways. These efforts, while expansive, were of limited long term value. Even if Obama’s efforts had been more substantial, his use of executive power has enabled Trump to spend four years using those same powers to reverse whatever fleeting progress was achieved.

Unsurprisingly, history has begun to repeat itself. Joe Biden announced on January 26 a series of executive actions he would sign to begin addressing climate change. His plans include the creation of a civilian ‘climate corps,’ the elevation of climate change to a national security concern, and a plan to reduce emissions produced by the federal government. Earlier, he also rejoined the Paris Climate Accords. For those more interested in image than action, Biden’s climate response thus far is stellar. But for anyone whose goal is to stop the climate from changing, the January press conference represents a great deal of nothing. A climate corps is a novel idea, but self evidently not a serious move towards carbon neutrality. The same can be said of our renewed support for the Paris Accords. The agreement is nonbinding and it shows. Even though most of the world has signed on, most of the world has not even begun to take the drastic action called for in the 32 page document. It must be granted that Biden’s administration is young, but all the same I suspect this kind of incrementalism indicates the Democrats’ plans for the next four years, just as under Obama. Nevermind the Republican Party’s ongoing loyalty to big oil. Democrats could be the most radical climate activists in the western hemisphere, but it would not matter as long as Republicans hold on to power in some way. Through either the Senate or the courts, Mitch Mcconnel and his adherents will find a way to block climate legislation. Regardless of which party is in control or who is president, it seems America’s climate strategy is half measures at best or regression at worst.

For the sake of argument, let us imagine that the Biden administration put us on track to meet the targets set forth by the IPCC: carbon neutrality by 2050 and halfway there by the end of the decade. Suppose the U.S. had done its part. What about the rest of the world? What about the remaining 194 countries? As it stands, Morocco is the sole nation on Earth who is on track to meet carbon neutrality by 2050. The efforts of most countries, particularly those that are developed, are categorized as insufficient by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT). There are six countries — the Philippines, India, Bhutan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Costa Rica — whose emissions are low enough to only induce two degrees Celsius of warming. Every remaining country tracked by CAT, especially the U.S. and China, are way behind the IPCC targets. Unless, at some point in the next ten years, an unprecedented international cooperation materializes spontaneously, it seems that we, as a species, have failed. It would appear that climate disaster is our destiny.

Where does that leave us? In a burning building with no way out. Perhaps the super rich will put their reusable rockets to use and find refuge on neighboring solar bodies. But for those of us without the means to escape Earth, staying is the only option. Our planet and its slow decline appear inescapable. What, then, is to be done?

While climate change itself appears unavoidable, perhaps its externalities can be managed. NASA calls this “Adaptation.” “The goal,” according to NASA, “is to reduce our vulnerability to the harmful effects of climate change (like sea-level encroachment, more intense extreme weather events or food insecurity).” This creates a Newton’s law for climate: for each consequence of climate change, there must be an equal and opposite response. When the seas threaten to swallow New York City, a sea wall of adequate height must be built. When the climate of the Midwest becomes unsuitable for corn, our most relied upon crop, new strains will have to be engineered, or perhaps we will have to find a new place to grow corn altogether. When droughts limit the water supply of our nation’s metros, new and more varied sources must be secured. When millions of climate refugees arrive on our doorstep, there must be adequate systems to welcome countless new Americans. No matter what happens, a world with a rapidly changing climate will be laden with disaster. The people of America can either sit back while catastrophe devours our way of life, or we can prepare for the future we know is coming. This begs the aforementioned question: does the political will for climate adaptation exist, or will we standby just as with prevention?

The answer is not clear. In the world of American politics, there is almost no discussion of, much less movement towards, climate adaptation. The only notable national figure to ever address the question seriously is presidential candidate Andrew Yang. On the campaign trail, he was unafraid to acknowledge the harsh truth of impending climate disaster and his website even features several policies in the vein of adaptation. His ‘Move to Higher Ground’ policy details a plan to “make up to $40 billion available in subsidies, grants, and low-interest loans to individuals who wish to elevate or relocate their homes, or move to higher ground” and “invest $30 billion in high-risk cities to build seawalls and water pumps, upgrade roads and sewer systems, and rejuvenate beaches to serve as barriers to rising sea levels.” This is the most serious climate adaptation policy put forth by a national political figure, and it is nonetheless radically insufficient. The estimated cost of constructing adequate sea wall infrastructure in the state of Florida alone is nearly $76 billion. Protecting at-risk communities of the entire U.S. would set us back more than $400 billion. Yang’s plan calls for less than one-tenth of what is needed. From most Democrats, the best we have gotten are vague illusions to adaptation — nothing concrete. Republicans will not even discuss policies to combat the issue. It would seem that adaptation is even less feasible than mitigation. That is, for now.

As we approach the doom date of 2100 and climate effects worsen across the country, it becomes more and more foolish for voters and our elected officials to ignore climate change. As severe weather events grow commonplace, as droughts grow more frequent, and as all of the effects of climate change grow in occurrence and severity, it will become clear that something must be done. Then, the political will for climate adaptation may arise. Climate mitigation is a difficult sell because the effects are so abstract. Once the reality of climate change becomes undeniable, it seems more plausible that average Americans will become eager to adopt climate measures.

Whatever is achieved in the next century or so, an America at the mercy of climate change will look very different to the union of states we know today. Either we will have taken the appropriate measures in light of a rapidly changing climate, or we will have stood around with our hands in our pockets while the natural systems we rely upon crumble in front of us. We can maintain our relatively high standard of living, or we can sacrifice our way of life to our own shortsightedness. The climate is changing — our half measures will not change this certainty. The only decision facing us now is to act or to be acted upon.

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