Op-Ed: Realities of Climate Change Are Finally Pushing Us to Action

Angela Anderson of the Union of Concerned Scientists explains why Washington is finding it harder and harder to ignore climate change.

Egypt Drought

An Egyptian farmer surveys the damage drought has wrought on his famland near Al-Dakahlya. (Photo: Reuters Pictures). 

Angela Ledford Anderson is the director of the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

In the years since the world’s most famous PowerPoint presentation hit theatres, public opinion and political leadership on climate change have seemingly vacillated with the seasons.

Yet even as public sentiment shifted, the science on climate change became starker. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned the world of the consequences of overloading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide in 2007. In the United States, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) projected that the U.S. Northeast would have a climate more like the South’s by the end of the century if no action was taken to reduce emissions. Subsequent studies and reports have confirmed and built on those findings.

A few years ago, serious national and international laws to address climate change seemed all but inevitable. But poor diplomacy and a sluggish global economy doomed international treaty negotiations. Domestically, fossil fuel interests and an increasingly polarized Congress scuttled climate legislation.

Some politicians started to treat climate change as a punch line. Notably, Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) erected an igloo in the shadow of the Capitol dedicated to Al Gore during a Washington snowstorm.

But as “climate” became a four-letter word in Washington, extreme weather made 2011 a turbulent year for Earth’s climate system. Amid heatwaves and flooding, more people began to understand that this was just what scientists said would happen under a warming climate. It’s clearer now that in addition to cutting emissions, we also have to prepare for the climate change already underway. Few events illustrated that new reality as starkly as Sandy, which rode in on a high tide made ever-higher by rising sea levels. Suddenly, political leaders were talking about climate change again, including President Obama.

Outside of Washington, of course, the climate conversation never really stopped. Dr. Jennifer Jurado, the Natural Resources Management and Planning Director of Broward County, Florida, has for years been working with other officials to reduce emissions and prepare for rising seas. Thankfully, she’s not alone. From Boston to Chicago, to Tucson and Los Angeles, local leaders are using science to figure out how to respond.

Interestingly, they’re finding that even when people disagree about whether or not climate change is causing sea levels to rise or wildfires to proliferate, that disagreement doesn’t stop them from taking steps to make their communities safer.

Yale professor Dan Kahan explains this seemingly odd phenomenon: “Coastal states like Florida, Louisiana, Virginia, and the Carolinas, as well as arid western ones like Arizona, Nevada, California, and New Mexico have all had ‘climate problems’ for as long as human beings have been living in them. Dealing with such problems in resourceful, resilient, and stunningly successful ways is what the residents of those states do all the time.”

The reality of climate change we’re seeing on the ground is pushing inexorably on Washington. As more and more communities move to protect themselves from a changing climate, more and more politicians are supporting policies that can reduce emissions and protect us all.

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