Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

Opinion: Where’s the Dialogue on Climate?

Ten days ago, I had the good fortune of moderating a panel at the Association of Opinion Journalists in Orlando, Florida.  The topic my colleagues and I were supposed to address was Climate and the Environment.  As I prepared my remarks, I couldn’t help but think about how lacking the public debate has been on substantive issues for the last two months.  Sure, there’s been a lot of coverage of the horse race that is presidential politics–but talk about being light on the issues!

The two people I shared the panel with were remarkably qualified.  Andrew Holland of the American Security Project is a recognized thought-leader on environmental, energy, and climate issues.  Peter Pritchard is the “Godfather of Turtles,” and has been a Time magazine “Hero of the Planet.”

So here is an excerpt of my opening remarks.  It was one person’s plea that we ought to be talking about big issues–not the small stuff that dominates the coverage.

Begin Excerpt:

. . . . I’ve been asked to say just a few words to tee up the issues and then turn it over to my colleagues who will really depress you.

I kid.

I make light of a very serious set of issues.  Why?  Because it’s so serious, and at times it seems like no one is listening.

Like no one is paying attention as the environment around us changes.  As species that have survived for millennia slip into extinction.  As the science becomes clearer by the day.  As the evidence mounts daily—clear for everyone to see—that the climate is changing with potentially catastrophic consequences for life on this planet.

Over at the University of Central Florida later today, Congressman Paul Ryan will be speaking at a campaign rally.  What do you think the odds are that he will mention the environment?  Do you think he will be asked about climate change?

This is a candidate who two years ago suggested scientists were attempting to “intentionally mislead the public” about climate change.  He was of course referring to the so-called “Climate-Gate” emails.  But he of course has since made no reference to investigations from Penn State University in the United States, The University of East Anglia in Britain, the British House of Commons, the American National Science Foundation and the EPA—each of whom concluded that “Climate Gate” does not alter our understanding of what is happening in the Earth’s climate.

In fact, the case for climate change—and human induced or anthropomorphic—climate change has only gotten stronger.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

  • Researchers at Oxford University in the United Kingdom predict a 2.5 to 5.4 degree rise in global temperatures by mid-century—that’s a larger and faster increase than the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—and most others—have predicted.[1]
  • In the Arctic, sea ice is disappearing, with new record ice loss seeming to arrive each year—and the general consensus emerging that the IPCC was too conservative in its projects about the rate of melt as well as the risk of sea level rise.[2]
    • This summer, sea ice collapsed to 1.32 million square miles, just 24% of the surface of the Arctic Ocean.  The previous low, set in 2007, was 29%.[3]
    • In 2007, the UN Climate Panel predicted sea ice would disappear in Arctic summers by mid-century.  Now experts believe it could be 2015 or 2016.
    • All manner of life on this planet is under stress.  There have been five great mass extinctions over the past 540 million years.  In each of those events, 75% or more of all species disappeared over the course of a few million years. Now scientists at UC Berkeley warn that humanity may be ushering in a sixth mass extinction.  Writing in the journal Nature, they reported last year that the current rate of extinctions far exceeds the historical norm, and should that rate continue, we will experience a sixth extinction in the next few centuries or millennia.  They drew special attention on the role of climate change, and conceded their conclusions may underestimate the impact of climate change on mass extinctions.  Yet they also had to concede that, in general, it is difficult to link the fate of any one species to changes in the Earth’s climate.[4]
    • Let’s be clear, plants and animals are adapting to climate by moving.  In 2003, researchers from the University and Texas and Wesleyan University found that the 1700 species they studied were “moving, on average 3.8 miles per decade toward the poles.  Animals and plants were also moving up mountain slopes.”[5]
    • And the phenomena is global.  In 2005, adult butterflies in Melbourne Australia, emerged from their pupae 1.5 days earlier each decade over previous 65 years.  Further laboratory observations linked this acceleration in development to warmer temperatures.

These are a staggering set of issues, global in scale, and yet not on the agenda for debate in 2012.  And that’s a disgrace.  Whatever you believe, personally, about climate science, this is a conversation we need to have as a nation—and the two parties come at the issue in fundamentally different ways.

Let me just point to one more piece of Congressman Ryan’s record:  in 2011, Congressman Ryan voted for an amendment to prohibit the Department of Agriculture from studying how to adapt to climate change.

Ladies and gentlemen, are we really that confident that we don’t even want to be THINKING about what adaptation might look like for America’s farmers?

In 2011, in my last few months as Executive Director of the American Security Project, we released a 50 state assessment of what climate change will cost the citizens of each state in the Union when their communities and economies are ultimately affected by climate change.  Our thought was—well, everyone can point to the cost of action.  What’s the cost of inaction?

The numbers will break your heart because they dwarf, by a lot, the projected cost of the most recent comprehensive climate and energy legislation presented to Congress a couple of years ago.  Make no mistake about it, we’re going to pay for climate change—it’s just a matter of how much and when.

That’s the conversation we need to have six weeks before election day, here in Orlando and around the country.  I hope someone has the opportunity to ask Congressman Ryan about it when he’s at UCF today.

But in this hall this morning, we are fortunate to have two great speakers ready to share the truth they know.

[1] Doyle Rice, “Study: Global Temperatures could rise 5 degrees by 2050,” USA Today, March 25, 2012.

[2] See Karl Ritter, “New Report confirms Arctic Ice Melt Accelerating,” AP, May 3, 2014.

[3] Justin Gillis, “Ending its summer melt, Arctic Sea ice sets a new low that leads to warnings,” New York Times, September 19, 2012.

[4] Carl Zimmer, “Multitude of Species Face Climate Threat,” The New  York Times, April 4, 2012.

[5] Carl Zimmer, “Multitude of Species Face Climate Threat,” The New  York Times, April 4, 2012.

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