Author:McNerney, Jerry

The Threat

Over seven billion human beings are dumping more than thirty gigatons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) into the atmosphere every year. Despite being a small fraction of the gasses that compose Earths atmosphere, C[O.sub.2] has provided regulation and stability to our climate for eons. However, the concentration of C[O.sub.2] in the atmosphere has increased 40 percent since the Industrial Revolution, changing the atmospheres delicate energy balance and altering the dynamics of our climate. The buildup of energy in the earths atmosphere and oceans has been slow, but the impact from the increase of C[O.sub.2] is now accelerating. In addition, other gasses--such as methane--that are more effective infrared reflectors than C[O.sub.2] are ending up in the air in increasing quantities every year. Moreover, there are feedback mechanisms in place that will exacerbate the problem, such as methane being released by thawing tundra and the melting ice cap over the arctic, which reflects less light back to space.

Anyone open to an honest evaluation of these obvious trends is aware that the climate is changing, and humans are largely responsible. I've heard climate change deniers argue that the models aren't accurate enough and we must wait until the models are better to take action. But the models consistently err on the side of underestimating the rate of climate change and its impacts. The truth is the climate is changing, the rate of change is accelerating, and the threat is grave.

Others argue that humans are extremely adaptable and will survive after some predictable hardships. The problem is that climate change doesn't exist in isolation of social and national security challenges. Large-scale migrations typically result in political instability in the receiving countries. For example, recent migration from Syria and Africa has harmed European cohesion and stability. Current migration through the United States' southern border has introduced partisan flashpoints into US politics. If climate change proceeds as predicted and densely populated coastal cities are inundated, then the migrations of the past will be dwarfed, and social instability will explode. Climate change will include droughts, flooding, and large-scale food shortages. The political upheavals that result will be very dangerous in an era of weapons of mass destruction. In other words, climate change has the potential to not only result in large-scale suffering but could lead to potential extinction events.

Humanist readers likely know this already. What I can offer here, as a former energy consultant for traditional utilities and wind and electric power companies, is a sober assessment of the challenges we face. As a member of the US House of Representatives since 2007 (representing the ninth district of California), I can also offer some insight into the prospects for legislative progress in this vitally important area.

Obstacles to Action

For a long time climate change deniers claimed that what we were experiencing was normal. As evidence of change mounted, deniers retreated from strict to partial denial, claiming that although the climate was changing, humans weren't the cause. But even that position is no longer viable except to the most ardently resistant, so the denial group has evolved to claim that even though climate change is happening and that humans may be causing it, we can't take definitive steps to reduce emissions because the economic cost will be too great.

It's easy enough to see why denial or inaction is so persistent and why it has so much sway in Washington, DC. The persistence has two bases. First, people don't like change. We've lived our whole lives using carbon-based energy It may have its flaws, but it has made day-to-day life better for billions of people. If fossil fuel energy were to be turned off today, there would be a reckoning. Carbon fuel has lifted the vast majority of people up from Thomas Hobbess version of the nasty, brutish, and short life of daily manual toil. For example, without fertilizers that are...

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