This summer, flooding, hot spells, drought and firestorms are beginning to show us that climate change will be the defining issue of this century.
The drought in middle America already has caused a 10 percent rise in food prices.
Unfortunately, it appears that the impact of climate change will become much more extreme for a number of reasons. Individually, we have little control over this, but we do have a chance during the coming elections to push our government to face this issue more responsibly.
The factors that appear to make extreme climate change inevitable include the length of time required to build a new “green” energy infrastructure, the profit structure of corporations, politics and human nature. The health of our economy depends on cheap portable energy. Now, this means burning huge amounts of oil, gas and coal.
Unfortunately, burning fossil fuels releases a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, which leads to climate warming. Even the CEO of ExxonMobil now admits that burning fossil fuels is making climate change worse.
A fundamental switch to renewable energy sources, however, will slow, because it will take many years to build the new infrastructure (windmills, solar panels, etc). If we wait until our climate becomes really alarming before we start shifting away from burning fossil fuels, global warming will continue to worsen for many more years.
Our nation could take powerful and rapid steps now toward reducing carbon dioxide emissions by supporting organic farming more than big agribusiness, and by aggressively supporting energy conservation and green (non-fossil fuel) energy. This is not happening, however, because of the political clout of big corporations and the corporate structure that rewards only short-term profitability.
The profitability of oil companies and big agribusiness depends on continuing business as usual. The free market cannot be expected to solve this problem because the kinds of changes that would reduce climate change would decrease profits in the fossil fuel industries.
And so a highly successful partnership has developed, involving the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries paying politicians (through campaign contributions) to maintain business as usual. This may be the most important reason that extreme climate change is nearly inevitable.
And then there are the problems with human nature. We feel powerless to affect our government and so we usually give up trying. We all want to believe that the leaders of our own political parties are telling the truth and doing the right thing, even when they aren’t. Consequently, the American people have not yet insisted that our government take action on global warming.
The founding fathers wrote that we must be ever vigilant to combat corruption in our democratic process. And indeed, governmental action on climate change has been blocked by vested interests.
Further, politicians don’t want to ask the electorate to make changes or sacrifices unless they have enough political backing to pass these laws and to be re-elected, and so we cannot expect bold political action unless we provide popular electoral support.
The environmental movement in the 1960s and ’70s showed us that change can come from a popular grass roots movement.
Fortunately, a popular movement to minimize climate change is beginning (for example, see 350.org or Physicians for Social Responsibility), and government has taken some steps to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
President Barack Obama has begun investing in alternative energy infrastructure, and he has raised the economy standards to 54.5 mpg for cars and light duty trucks for model year 2025. That date, however, is a long time away, and our nation’s yearly emission of carbon dioxide continues to grow larger.
Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s energy plan denies climate change. It would gut the EPA, increase tax breaks, decrease safety requirements on drilling for oil and gas and cut government loans for renewable energy.
Romney’s energy plan also promises the oil industry nearly everything it wants, and makes no mention at all of climate change.
The oil and gas industries have donated tens of millions to Super PACs that support Romney’s campaign, which may pressure him to support the Big Oil agenda more than green energy.
Climate change cannot be decreased effectively if Republicans and Democrats continue to fight over it. So ideally, both our presidential candidates and all our congressional candidates should hear that millions of Americans are serious about what climate scientists have been saying for the past decade: that we must take more and bolder steps now to avoid terrible trouble for the next generation.
With the elections looming, now is a particularly powerful time to let them know that the price of our votes is taking meaningful actions to mitigate climate change. We already have waited too long. Now we must act to give our children a fair chance in life.
Richard Thomas has a Ph.D. in psychology and has studied the issues of peak oil and climate change for the past 10 years through courses on climate science, and as part of a study group in the Waterville Universalist Unitarian Church.