At the United Nations Climate Conference in Poland, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he wished he could travel back through time, Terminator-style, and stop the use of fossil fuels before it began. If only it were that easy.
Schwarzenegger was reflecting on the urgency of a new U.N. climate report that warns the world must take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to cut carbon emissions by nearly half in little more than a decade in order to avoid catastrophic warming.
Because there are no superheroes to lead the effort, the task of stopping the growth of carbon in the atmosphere falls to political leaders. The top three contributors of greenhouse gas emissions are China, the United States and the European Union, in that order. But the United States is the leader on a per capita basis, as it releases more than twice the carbon per capita than China.
Until recently, it was expected that the United States would be the leader in a world effort to curb the growth in greenhouse gasses — which in 2017 actually increased by 1.4 percent globally, after holding steady for three years. But the Trump administration seems determined to head in the opposite direction. The president tells us that he is skeptical of the science and predictions his own government has generated. “I don’t see it,” he told The Washington Post, when asked about the U.S. government’s National Climate Assessment, released last month. Instead of leading the world effort, the president wants to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which 170 countries have either ratified or joined.
The administration’s efforts are cause for concern. The EPA has already announced rollbacks of emissions standards at coal-fired power plants and an expansion of oil. And, according to one report, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, now the EPA’s acting director, “is seen to be focused on reversing regulations that protect the nation’s air and water and instead promoting the wishes of the industries impacted by those regulations.”
Then, on Monday, the United States joined with Saudi Arabia and Russia to weaken language endorsing the U.N. report. Perhaps the president is worried about potential opposition to conservation efforts, and is influenced by the “yellow vest” demonstrations in France over a planned hike in the fuel tax to
But there are potentially very significant costs to doing nothing. According to the U.S. government study, in the worst-case scenario, the U.S. economy could lose more than 10 percent of its GDP by the end of the century. Work hours could decline because of extreme heat, as could crop yields because of both drought and flooding. The Midwest alone could see an increase in premature deaths by 2090.
These are all real threats, backed by real science and real research. It is time for action and U.S. leadership.