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President Barack Obama made a brief statement in the Rose Garden Wednesday, announcing that the global accord to combat climate change, the Paris Agreement, had achieved enough signatories to enter into force. “This gives us the best possible shot to save the one planet we’ve got,” Obama said. At that moment, about 1,200 miles due south, Hurricane Matthew, as reported by Weather Underground, was “reorganizing” and “restrengthening” over the Bahamas, after pounding Haiti and Cuba. Millions along Florida’s east coast and many more in South Carolina were battening down their homes and evacuating. Nature’s fury raged onward, unmoved by the diplomatic efforts to tame her.
The Paris Agreement is a clear measure of the limits of diplomacy. Facing a global threat of almost unimaginable proportions, the best the world’s nations could muster was a voluntary agreement. In pursuit of the goal of limiting the average planetary temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) over preindustrial levels, or, failing that, to limit the increase to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), the agreement includes, Obama said, “a strong system of transparency that allows each nation to evaluate the progress of all other nations.” The voluntary emission reduction pledges that each nation makes will allow countries to “carbon shame” those that don’t behave.
Last week, Robert Watson, the former chair of the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with a group of climate scientists, released a paper titled, “The Truth About Climate Change.” The scientists state that “current pledges ... are far from sufficient to put the world on a pathway to meet the 2 degrees C target,” adding, “the 1.5 degrees C target has almost certainly already been missed because of the lack of action to stop the increase in global GHG emissions for the last 20 years.”
What are the consequences of this rapid warming of the planet? The severe impacts can be seen everywhere. “Climate change is happening now, and much faster than anticipated,” Watson and his colleagues write. “The evidence is what most have been experiencing as unusual weather events, such as changes in average rain patterns leading to floods or droughts, more intense storms, heat waves and wildfires, among other daily examples.” It is not just natural disasters that we have to worry about either. Many have traced the roots of the civil war in Syria, in part, to a persistent drought there. Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, meanwhile, have found that “warming trends since 1980 elevated conflict risk in Africa by 11 percent.”
Climate activist Bill McKibben writes in the New Republic: “A World at War: We’re under attack from climate change – and our only hope is to mobilize like we did in WWII.” He is the co-founder of the group 350.org, named after the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, in parts per million (ppm), that many feel is the highest safe level. Last year, as reported by the Mauna Loa Observatory, “the annual average carbon dioxide concentration was 400.8 [ppm] – a new record, and a new milestone.”
McKibben told us on the “Democracy Now!” news hour: “If you look at how America mobilized during World War II, the industrial might that we brought to bear, and then you do the calculations, it’s at the outside edge of possible that we could, in the short time that we have, build enough solar panels and wind turbines. But it’s going to take the same kind of focused effort.”
Following the only U.S. vice-presidential debate on Tuesday, May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, said: “Yet again, tonight’s debate moderator dropped the ball on climate change. Silence is another form of denial, and the TV networks are doing the public a great disservice by ignoring the issue, especially when there are such clear differences between the candidates.”
Her point could not have been more timely. The VP debate was held in Virginia. Governors throughout the Southeast were declaring states of emergency in preparation for Hurricane Matthew. “While Donald Trump has received all the climate-denying attention recently, Governor Mike Pence is equally guilty of attempts to refute the science on climate change,” Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, said in a statement. “From refusing to implement the Clean Power Plan as Indiana governor to claiming global warming is a myth, Governor Pence’s aggressive attacks on science should be nowhere near the White House. A Trump-Pence combination would be catastrophic for this country, and for its critical role in making global progress on climate change.”
Robert Watson’s paper opens with a quote by Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Climate change is real, and it is worsening. That it should play a central role in the U.S. elections is undebatable.