World environmental news includes dramatic evidence of rising sea levels, acidifying oceans, and shrinking arctic sea ice as well as extreme weather events, massive wildfires, increased flooding, and intense droughts. These conditions threaten people worldwide, causing deaths, spreading disease, and worsening air quality. They also cost Americans billions of dollars.
The most respected scientific bodies identify the reality of climate change as global warming caused by human activities. Natural fluctuations in weather patterns fail to account for the growing intensity of the earth’s warming.
Human-made climate change comes from greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. The steadily expanding use of fossil fuels, like coal, oil, and gas, releases most of the heat trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As the carbon dioxide concentrations build up, the planet becomes warmer, reaching the hottest levels ever recorded between 2000 and 2010. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher now than at any time in measurable history, and predicted to increase dramatically this century.
Given the international scientific consensus regarding global climate change, one would think that the only real debate centers on how fast warming will occur, and how much damage will be done. But a small number of critics continue to deny that climate change exists or that humans cause it.
The political prospects for addressing climate change seem remote. Skepticism or even flat-out denial of global warming has become part of the Republican Party’s core message. A number of Congressional Republicans refuse to even acknowledge the existence of climate change.
In the 2008 presidential election year, Barack Obama and John McCain agreed that climate change was a critical issue demanding immediate attention. But Congress failed to pass a comprehensive climate bill. Yet, in his first term, Obama reduced greenhouse gas emissions by increasing vehicular fuel efficiency standards and regulating emissions for new power plants.
In the 2012 presidential election cycle, Obama and Mitt Romney barely discussed climate change. Now Obama has vowed to make climate change a priority of his second administration. Two big climate demonstrations, the one that occurred in mid-February and the upcoming one on Earth Day (April 22), aim to pressure President Obama to show much stronger environmental leadership.
A recent Pew poll revealed that by a 54 percent to 34 percent margin Americans favor developing alternative energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydrogen rather than increased production of fossil fuels. Additionally, 62 percent favor setting stricter emission limits on power plants to address climate change while 28 percent oppose this.
Power plants, especially coal-fired ones, account for 40 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emission, not to mention thousands of deaths, heart attacks, and asthma cases every year. Transitioning to a new energy system based on climate-safe alternatives entails a long term commitment and public support. The fossil fuel industry, after all, ranks as the richest business enterprise in history and holds enormous political clout.
The President can use the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Act to cut greenhouse gas emissions by regulating all, not just new, power plants, and thereby reduce power plant emissions 26 percent by 2020. He can also deny the Keystone XL pipeline permit. A much more difficult task involves switching the subsidies from traditional to renewable fuels.
Increasing solar, wind, and other renewable sources, improving energy efficiency, and researching experimental technologies can smooth the path to a low-carbon economy. Conservation practices by individuals and businesses provide another way to reduce consumption.
Addressing global warming requires cutting pollution and expanding clean energy. The Obama administration has taken some steps in that direction, but clearly much more needs to be done.
Ralph Scharnau teaches U. S. history at Northeast Iowa Community College, Peosta. He holds a Ph.D. from Northern Illinois University. His publications include articles on labor history in Iowa and Dubuque. Scharnau, a peace and justice activist, writes monthly op-ed columns for the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.