Climate change: clear and present danger

This week, my brother, his wife and young baby were trapped without electricity in their Hoboken apartment. My sister is still in the dark in Allentown. Hurricane Sandy brought destruction and chaos to our shores and our thoughts are with all those to whom the storm brought damage and turmoil. Sandy is just the latest in a trend of unusual and violent weather events that are frightening, destructive and costly. This is what climate change looks like and it is happening now. We need to tackle climate change in real time at home and abroad. It is not a problem of the distant future about which only our children need to worry. And the main area where we need to see change is in our dependence on fossil fuels – especially on oil. In the US, the doubling of fuel efficiency standards by 2025 is the single biggest step this country has ever taken to cut oil dependency and carbon pollution. The new standards are putting the US on the right course. However, here at home and around the globe, we need to do more to reduce our dependence on oil and put cleaner transportation solutions in place.

Around the globe and here at home, oil extraction, pipelines and refining despoil important ecosystems, exhaust our fresh water supply, devastate the health of oil industry workers and those living near oil deposits and refineries, and, as oil and gasoline prices rise, put an increasing burden on our pocketbooks and economy. Politically, the oil industry exerts a pernicious influence that is almost unmatched – including consistently undermining efforts to fight climate change and promote clean energy. Worldwide, just the combustion of oil creates at least 34 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In the US, 42 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are connected to oil. A new oil boom is taking place as industry goes after expensive, risky and difficult to access sources of oil. OilChange International has calculated in this blog post how the new oil boom is a bust for the climate and will cause us to blow even further past acceptable carbon emissions worldwide if we continue on this path. We need to start by moving away from the dirtiest forms of oil and in the first instance that means stopping expansion of tar sands strip-mining and drilling in Canada.

For too long, climate change has been seen by world governments as a problem of the future, something that we could handle with incremental changes. This should no longer be the case. The American Meterological Society just updated its position on climate change stating that there is “unequivocal evidence” of climate change and global warming with the “dominant cause” being human activities. This year saw the warmest September across the globe. Hurricane Sandy, the unprecedented melting of the Arctic sea ice and the many incidents of extreme weather over the past year are making it clear that climate change is affecting our homes, health and pocketbooks.

The American Security Project. a leading bi-partisan national security think tank, just released a new report also emphasizing that climate change is real and happening in real time. It outlines costs of climate change to our economic and national security both at home and abroad.  Brigadier General Stephen A. Cheney, USMC (Ret.), CEO of the American Security Project, said:  “One of the most significant challenges to the global security system in the 21st Century will be a changing climate.  Climate change poses a clear and present danger to the United States through its effects on our global allies as well as its direct effects on our agriculture, infrastructure, economy and public health. The impact of Hurricane Sandy shows that this is a threat today.”

The discussion of the costs of climate change is not new – especially in the insurance field. The socially responsible investment group Ceres found in their report “Stormy Futures for U.S. Property/Casualty Insurers: The Growing Costs and Risks of Extreme Weather Events” found that  insurers expect climate change – which already caused $32 billion in insured losses last year - to continue to raise costs through extreme weather events. Just this week, catastrophe risk modeling firm Eqecat estimates  post-landfall insurance costs of Hurricane Sandy in the range of $10-$20 billion in insured losses and $30-$50 billion in total economic losses, including from electricity and subway outages.

Americans get it: a new poll taken after this season of extreme weather – but still prior to Hurricane Sandy shows that in increasing numbers Americans believe in the reality of global warming, believe that it is caused by human activities and see that climate change is harming people at home and abroad. Americans are worried, joining people in countries around the world who have also recognized the immediacy of the costs of climate change. But this concern needs to be translated into action. This year might have been record-breaking in terms of insurance costs due to climate change, but worldwide this year is also likely to be the first down year for clean energy investments in eight years. This shows that even while costs are racking up, we are not moving forward aggressively enough in building solutions.

It is time for our leaders here at home and around the world to grasp the urgency of dealing with climate change. We cannot continue down the path of business as usual. We cannot assume that we can go after every last drop of oil around the world and still have healthy communities and economies. We need a consistent global climate and energy strategy that moves us rapidly away from ever dirtier energy and provides us a path forwards towards clean energy choices.

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