Humankind’s most daunting challenge

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by Hans Dembowski

Climate change remains a burning issue

In today’s Financial Times, Edward Luce has an interesting comment. He notes that the impacts of climate change are being felt by millions of Americans, but the issue nonetheless hardly figures in the current election campaign. Unfortunately, climate protection does not seem to be high on policymakers’ agendas in other countries either.

According to NASA, the six-month period from January to June 2016 was our planet's warmest half-year on record. As the US space agency reports, the average temperature was 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than in the late 19th century. Moreover, according to NASA data, five of the first six months also set records for the smallest respective monthly Arctic sea ice shield since consistent satellite records began in 1979.

In his FT column, Luce points out that climate change is no longer just something Al Gore discussed in a documentary film. Rather, the impacts are felt all over the USA:

“Last month, America’s east coast suffered from an unusually long ‘heat dome’ — summer temperatures so high the authorities in New York, Washington and elsewhere urged people to keep their children inside and stay well hydrated. My home in Washington was hit by two nights of electricity outage. The power company’s crew said they expected many more such cuts. Their underground cables were not designed to withstand so many days of daytime temperatures near 100°F (38°C). People living in southern California, which has suffered from a rise in the ferocity of wildfires; Louisiana, which earlier this month was flooded by “once-in-a-thousand-year” rainfall; or large tracts of midwest America, where drought is no longer freakish, are feeling the anecdotal force of climate change. (…) Earlier this month, Zillow, an online property site, forecast that one in eight homes in Florida would be underwater by the end of the century.”

According to the FT columnist, there are two reasons why these dramatic trends are not shaping democratic discourse. The first is that people have ever less faith in scientific expertise, and the second is that they feel that measures to stem climate change will prove costly. Luce’s assessment makes sense.

The problem, however, will not go away just because people don’t want to tackle it. Denial of the scientific truth will result in much higher costs in the long run than any kind of carbon tax would induce in the short run.

The impacts of climate change are even worse in other parts of the world of course. The Economist recently ran a story about the consequences of rising temperatures in the Middle East, reporting that, according to UNEP, the harsh climate annually claims 230,000 human lives on the Arab Peninsula and the fertile crescent to its north – more than the region’s wars do. Daytime temperatures in the region are set to rise by another seven degrees, scientists warn. Water stress will increase as growing populations will need ever more of this vital, but dwindling resource.

It is no secret that the region’s authoritarian governments are focusing on other issues than climate change and the environment in general. Sadly, that can be said pretty much of every world region. Rising temperatures will compound all of humankinds major problems, but our leaders are distracted by all sorts of other issues.

Perhaps they feel that things have been taken care of by the climate summit in Paris late last year. The truth, however, is that the pledges made there will not suffice to keep global warming in check – and that they need to be kept to have any impact at all. The time to act is running out. Climate change is irreversible. Cooling our warming planet is the most daunting challenge our leaders should be tackling, but they are busy doing other things.   

       

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