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While Our Attention is Elsewhere, Climate Change Worsens

Donald Trump’s presidency has gotten so much attention that the latest threats to climate stability have received only passing notice. To be sure, Trump’s belief that climate change is a Chinese “hoax,” and his appointment of climate change deniers to head major agencies, have been widely publicized. Even so, the news of actual events—hurricanes, floods, drought, sharp temperature changes, and other distortions in weather patterns in the US and around the world—typically are being crowded out by Trump’s tantrums, fake news, and conflicts of interest.

For the strong of heart, here are some important developments affecting climate change over the past several months that you may have missed:

* Mexico City’s water table is sinking at an alarming rate, while climate change is causing flooding and drought that may cause mass emigration. Just the latest case of environmental refugees—and potential sources of new conflicts.

* The last estimate of sea-level rise before Obama left office, by the NOAA, sees a worst case of an 8-foot rise by the end of the century. The low estimate is still a1-foot rise. Parts of the US will be hit particularly hard. “An analysis of 90 U.S. cities suggested that such an increase in damaging floods could occur by 2030 in most locations under an intermediate-high sea-level rise scenario and by 2080 under a low scenario. In general, the report suggests it would take just shy of 14 inches of sea-level rise for this to happen in any given location.” A collapse of the West Antarctica is also quite possible, the report said.

* Worldwide, the nuclear industry is losing ground thanks to lower costs for wind and solar energy as well as natural gas, and the Fukushima tragedy in 2011. “Globally, wind power grew by 17%, solar by 33%, nuclear by 1.3%.” The World Nuclear Industry: Status Report 2016; It is no longer economical to invest in a nuclear power plant! As a result, the overall picture is one of cost overruns, abandoned projects, a very little new construction. About the only countries where the nuclear industry continues to thrive are France and South Korea. China’s nuclear industry, which has a high priority in the country’s energy future, has been hit by significant safety failures. Eight of China’s 36 currently operating reactors experienced these shutdowns, all caused by human error. The basic problem, openly discussed by Chinese specialists, is that there aren’t enough well-trained, well-rewarded safety inspectors. China thus is spending many times more money on renewable energy than on new nuclear power plants.

* Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is in serious danger. In 2016 it experienced its largest-ever die-off of coral.

* Deforestation in the Amazon basin, the world’s largest carbon sink, is once again on the rise. Farmers in Bolivia and Brazil are again clearing land in huge swaths for planting soy under contract to Cargill and Bunge. Those giant agribusinesses were among signers of the New York Declaration of Forests, which promises an end to deforestation in order to grow crops such as soy and palm oil. The common estimate is that one-tenth of global carbon emissions stem from clearing of land and accompanying fires in the Amazon region.

* Disintegration of the West Antarctica ice sheet is taking place right now. The elongating crack is unstoppable, and while it reportedly will not mean rising seas for decades, it is just another sign of warming oceans and future peril. By the end of the century, melting of this ice sheet, combined with ice melting elsewhere, will cause an estimated sea rise of five to six feet. That’s an extraordinary increase compared with predictions just a few years ago.

Every climate-change model I’ve seen suggests that we are way behind the curve for combating global warming and its potentially life-altering changes for human populations and habitat. Plans for a nation-wide solution, such as a carbon tax, seem like whistling in the dark given the sorry state of Washington politics. For instance, some Republican elder statesmen, including former secretaries of state George Shultz and James Baker, III, have come forward with a plan to counter climate change. Though they don’t embrace the obvious—that climate change is due mainly to human factors—they do think “the risks” are too great to be ignored. Hence, they recommend a carbon tax starting at $40 a ton at the well head or mine, the proceeds to be returned to consumers in dividend checks. Of course the producers are expected to pass on their tax to consumers.

Good luck. With Scott Pruitt at the helm, the Environmental Protection Agency is about to become the Environmental Destruction Agency. Trump has already given the order for significant cuts in the EPA’s budget. The oil and gas industry has Pruitt in its hip pocket, as just-released emails from Pruitt’s time in Oklahoma make crystal clear. As Forbes reminds us, “In six years he filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the EPA over expansion of the Clean Water Act and regulations on coal-fired power plants.” When Pruitt addressed EPA employees for the first time, he made clear that its business is business. Forbes, which ordinarily is a pro-business publication, firmly stated that Pruitt will be violating EPA’s statutory mission: “Compromise with industry is not included. The mission of the EPA is actually quite simple: ‘to protect human health and the environment—air, water and land’.”

In the US, our best hope lies at the state and city levels, especially now that cities provide the overwhelming portion of greenhouse gas emissions, and those in proximity to coasts have the greatest urgency to act. Here and there—in San Diego and other California cities, for instance, and in Des Moines and Adelaide, Australia—major reductions in those emissions are taking place or are planned. This article states that “over 10,000 initiatives are underway in cities worldwide,” which is admirable. But can these ideas possibly halt the upward curve toward planetary overheating?

James Hansen, the indefatigable former NASA official (he retired in 2013) who first brought the threat of climate change to our attention, believes that a carbon tax and a new kind of nuclear technology represent the last chance to thwart devastating climate change. The Paris Agreement’s call for limiting warming to 2 degrees C. is inadequate, he says. Without drastic political action, Hansen foresees the planet returning to conditions 120,000 years ago, when warming produced sea levels 20 to 30 feet higher than they are now. But Washington, DC is full of climate deniers, so what’s the answer? “It’s really crucial what happens in the near term. But it will take a strong leader who is willing to take on special interests. Whether that can be done without a new party that’s founded on just that principle, I’m not sure. So we’ll have to see.”

Not very encouraging—and we don’t have time to wait and see.

More articles by:

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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