Climate Change in America: A Defining Crisis of Our Century

Photo by Malachi Brooks on Unsplash

Climate change is one of our time’s defining issues, and it is a crisis that will cause unimaginable destruction if we don’t work towards solving it. Its effects throughout the country become more apparent and devastating with each passing year. Science shows that these climatic effects will continue to worsen if we don’t act, putting our environment and livelihoods at greater risk. Examples of this impending disaster include increasing global average temperatures, elevating wildfire risk, rising sea levels, the proliferation of invasive species, increasingly devastating hurricanes, flooding, and much more. These disasters don’t just affect the environment, though: they have increasingly threatened the American economy along with the nation’s prosperity, security, and stability.

A gradual increase in the potency and frequency of wildfires in western states has led to billions of dollars in economic damage, increased loss of life, mass environmental destruction, and worsening health outcomes for millions. Severe storms in the Midwest are threatening our food security by destroying or damaging millions of acres of farmland. Hurricanes and tropical storms are ravaging the Southeast, their effects only magnified by rising sea levels. Local economies are being thrown into turmoil and, in some cases, never return to normal. If we don’t act, the economic damage will continue to worsen. We will see a potential for declines in GDP growth, lost economic opportunities, mass climate migrations, and a more unstable nation as a result.

The current prognosis is bleak and downright devastating. Still, if this country’s innovative and resilient spirit is any indication, we will be able to emerge from the predicament we are in. To do so will require a united, bi-partisan, and evidence-based approach. In this article, we’ll lay out the case for what we think are pragmatic, bipartisan proposals that have support from the clear majority of the American people and can one day become law. In this time of crisis, we think there is a real opportunity to lay the groundwork for a bold, realistic approach to fighting climate change.

Section 1: The Reality of Climate Change

While scientists have widely agreed that human-caused climate change is a genuine phenomenon, somehow, large segments of the population still struggle to accept this reality. The science is out there and has been thoroughly supported by evidence, but political gridlock and stubborn denial continue to win out. Climate change and global warming at the hands of humans have been investigated for around 40 years — one of the earliest mentions of the term “global warming” comes from a 1988 Congressional committee hearing — and yet here we are, still trying to convince others that there is even a problem. The facts are clear: human activities have sped up the warming of the earth by a factor of approximately ten since pre-industrial times (NASA Earth Observatory 2010). As we have pumped out carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at an exponentially higher rate than before the industrial revolution (see below), the earth has undergone severe climate shifts as a result. As the earth’s average surface temperature rises, the oceans warm, ice and glacial cover shrinks, sea levels rise, and we experience more and more extreme “high temperature events” (NASA). The latest assessment report on climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the authoritative organization that studies this phenomenon, stated unequivocally, “Human influence on the climate system is clear and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history” (IPCC AR5). That report, published in 2014, laid out a clear picture of the devastating effects that unmitigated climate change could have on humanity at large. In 2018, the IPCC published a special report that described in further detail the impacts of global warming causing a 1.5° C temperature rise — that number being chosen because “global warming is likely to reach that number between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate” (IPCC SR, 2018). Global warming of 1.5° C would continue to exacerbate the effects of global warming — unexpected temperature fluctuations, increasingly frequent extreme climatic events, and even the wholesale loss of some ecosystems.

Photo from: climate.nasa.gov

The detrimental effects of climate change don’t just stop there. The potential for an economic catastrophe is equally as damning. In the past decade, we have seen destructive hurricanes, floods, wildfires, and other disasters that have been linked to our changing climate. Incidences of major climate catastrophes in the US with more than 1 billion dollars in economic damage have also steadily been on the rise (Climate.gov 2020). Between 2016 and 2019, the combined cost of global climate disasters totaled nearly 650 billion dollars, with North America shouldering more than 65% of that burden (CNBC 2019). It’s a number that has been increasing, putting more and more communities under increasing strain. It’s estimated that if temperatures continue to rise in the way they are to 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, we could see a 7.2% hit to GDP globally, and in a worst-case scenario, up to 10% of the country’s GDP could be lost (Washington Post 2019). In these situations, the US would be facing an economic cataclysm with trillions of dollars being erased from the economy. This isn’t just an illustration of numbers though; these numbers represent a real economic reality defined by rising joblessness, industries becoming nonviable, and entire communities being abandoned en masse. Industries like agriculture, real estate, and insurance will face untold burdens and destabilization. The fact of the matter is that if we continue down this path, we all but guarantee that we are putting the future of this nation’s prosperity at grave risk. Fighting climate change is critical to preserving our nation’s viability and protecting the people along with their jobs, communities, and industries. This is a problem that will affect us all whether we choose to believe it or not, and the consequences of inaction far outweigh the efforts needed to remedy it.

Section 2: The Political Stagnation of Climate Solutions

The economic and environmental prospects of climate change are both equally concerning and lay out the urgent need to deal with the problem effectively from various angles. It is clear that time is running out, and the country has to be willing to accept the necessity of the effort required to combat it. That being said, there are significant political hindrances in the way of this goal. In particular, the way our leaders have approached this problem has led to many proposals that fight climate change but cannot find broad-ranged support on a federal level. The continued politicization of the importance of climate change itself (let alone solutions) has divided the country, only serving to rob us of the one resource we can’t afford to lose: time.

On the right, in recent years, an increasing number of conservatives have been emphasizing the importance of climate change through organization like the American Conservation Coalition and RepublicEn. However, a substantial number of those with conservative ideological political preferences have tended to fall back on climate skepticism and denial, which sometimes morphs into a propensity to embrace conspiracy theories and misinformation. A significant reason this climate skepticism is strong is that climate change is still culturally perceived as a left-wing issue. Tackling climate change is seen as antithetical to the conservative ethos, and is perceived as resulting in government overreach, globalist ideals overruling national ones, and a disregard for the free market. This characterization no longer holds water, as bipartisan solutions to this crisis that do not run counter to a conservative school of thought have proven to be successful. We hope the solutions outlined below will provide the context and ideas that support this argument. Once conservative leaders recognize that solutions targeting climate change are not the boogeyman they claim, we hope that climate mistrust will dissipate in due course and lead to unified climate policy.

On the left, climate change itself is thankfully not up for debate: climate policy has dominated left-wing politics and continues to energize its base. However, leaders on the left can still do more to convince the general population that climate change policy is worth the effort instead of using it as a key factor in swinging voters to their candidacy and away from right-leaning candidates. Most importantly, the solutions offered have not done enough to appease the aforementioned concerns conservatives have, resulting in climate change policy that is effectively dead on arrival.

Section 3: Pragmatic, Popular, and Bipartisan Solutions

It is clear that climate change is a problem of enormous magnitude, but it’s something that America can face and win. Drawing on this country’s history of overcoming challenges like putting a person on the moon, we know that even though this challenge may be considerably greater, it is something we can overcome. Combating this problem will require us to be forward-thinking and emphasize our shared understandings of reason and science. It will require the best in us and test our innovative capacity, but as history shows, we can persevere even as precious time ticks away. There are many practical, evidence-based solutions to climate change, and many of them have roots in either conservative or liberal philosophies with real possibilities of being passed.

Organizations like the American Conservation Coalition on the right and proponents of initiatives like Biden’s Build Back Better climate proposal or the Green New Deal aim to solve climate change. These proposals have elements that need to be considered to build a cohesive, achievable plan that brings us closer to the end goal.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Sometimes referred to as a carbon tax, the policy of carbon dividends is the holy grail of effective, popular climate policy. Simply put, carbon dividends involve placing a corporate tax on a specific amount of CO2 and other carbon pollutants, the proceeds from which would then be redistributed to the country’s citizens. By pricing in the true cost of carbon into the economy and redistributing funds into citizens’ hands, this proposal can effectively use the market system to enact positive movement towards a more emissions-free environment. This policy would incentivize solutions, innovations, and businesses to effectively reduce carbon output, pushing the free market to mobilize against climate change. By putting money into citizens’ hands, a carbon dividend at a minimum will have a net-zero impact and, in the best scenario, act as a stimulus allowing people to support their livelihoods and businesses. Many countries worldwide have adopted these proposals, namely Canada, Britain, China, and various nations in Europe. The Canadian climate proposal is of particular interest. It works by levying a price on carbon, starting at $15 per ton and increasing to $38 per ton by 2022 if everything goes to plan (New York Times). Most of the revenue from this carbon tax is then distributed to citizens and communities; for example, in Ottawa, a family would receive $448 in 2020 (Canada 2019). In addition to that, climate policy organizations in the US have centered proposals that could be viable here at home as well. The Brookings Institution suggests pricing carbon starting at $25 then increasing it by 1% above inflation to achieve an 18% reduction in emissions from the 2005 emissions baseline (Brookings Institution 2019). This proposal is practical, easy to implement, and commands a majority of support amongst the population.

Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

Targeted investments in renewable energy sources like wind, solar, geothermal, and battery tech, among others, can accelerate our ability to fight climate change and lead to a broad revitalization of communities across the US. These sectors have been growing steadily over the past few decades, and old arguments that they cannot compete with traditional, non-renewable energy sectors are simply outdated. In fact, “in the case of both utility-scale solar and onshore wind power, …[the break-even cost] has dropped to about $40 per megawatt hour — which is lower than the cost of building new power plants that burn natural gas or coal” (Bloomberg 2019). Targeted investments in these sectors would reduce carbon emissions and grow the number of jobs in these sectors. Since 2000, wind and solar jobs have grown from 0 to nearly 457,000, while natural gas and coal jobs now only account for 159,000 jobs in the US (Forbes 2019). In addition to surging job growth in the field, jobs in renewable energy sectors are accessible to more workers with potentially higher wages, according to new Brookings Institution research (Brookings Institution 2019). Getting a clean energy job can “equal an 8%-19% increase in income, and 45% of all workers in clean energy production… have only a high school diploma, while still receiving higher wages than similarly educated peers in other industries” (Forbes 2 2019). One primary concern with the advent of green energy replacing traditional forms of power generation is that it will have a destabilizing effect on the livelihoods of those dependent on those industries, but this doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, as evidence proves, clean energy development can very well mean an economic boom to these regions. Shuttered coal mines are being turned into solar power plants in Virginia and Washington (Energy News Network 2019, NRDC 2018), while Illinois is aiming to convert economically unviable coal plants into solar-plus-storage facilities (St. Louis Post-Dispatch 2019). Investments in fighting climate change can lead to millions of good-paying jobs that support both blue and red states as well as cities, suburbs, and rural localities. It’s a win-win for everyone and can give us a pathway to expand prosperity and growth in society while effectively tackling climate change.

Photo by Luca Bravo on Unsplash

One of the most likely bipartisan proposals that has extensive support is mass reforestation. Over the last century, tens of millions of acres of forestland have been destroyed, and countless more are under threat from human-induced deforestation, wildfires, and invasive species. Forests are critical in trapping carbon emissions: according to the National Geographic, the average tree absorbs 48 pounds of carbon a year (National Geographic 2019). To put this in perspective, reforesting an area the size of the US would store an extra 57 billion tons of carbon by the end of the century, or in other words, 1/6th of all carbon emitted in the atmosphere (The Conversation 2019). Reforesting at a scale that can noticeably offset our carbon emissions would require a united national effort and cooperation from the global community, something the US can take the lead on. Nonprofits like American Forests and governmental organizations like the US Forest Service are already leading the effort, but there is always more we can do. In the West, reforestation and sustainable forestry have become the principled way of interacting with forests. This attitude towards sustainable forestry as an economic necessity on top of an environmental one is central to adopting reforestation globally. A concerted effort to reinforce our forests, expand them, and protect them from damaging threats will be crucial in the fight against climate change.

Photo by Adrian Schwarz on Unsplash

On the local and state level, legislation can be enacted to reduce restrictive housing regulations that prohibit growth and urbanization. Such efforts would upzone single-family homes and low-density business developments into duplexes, triplexes, high rises, or other mixed-use buildings. Doing so would have an outsized impact on reducing carbon emissions and turbo-charging local economies simultaneously. Studies show residents of large cities have lower emissions on average (NPR 2020) and that households in the suburbs contribute up to four times more in emissions than those living in dense urban areas (Berkeley 2014). By allowing density to increase, residents will be able to live closer to where they want to live while increasing the general affordability of doing so, meaning fewer miles traveled and more efficient use of land with a net benefit of lower carbon emissions. In the same vein increasing funding to public transport networks across the US such as buses, trains, and others will allow cities to provide effective alternatives to cars. In addition, pushing for a nationwide effort to bolster the electric vehicle (EV) grid in and between cities would accelerate the transition away from gas-powered vehicles. Such measures could reduce emissions drastically year over year.

Other Solutions

The solutions above have a great deal of momentum across various segments of the political spectrum. Still, several other solutions should be analyzed in greater detail as well.

Many of the best solutions to climate change have either yet to be discovered or have not been implemented to their full potential. Ensuring that the government provides an environment where innovation and competition in this field are encouraged will be paramount to accelerating our fight against climate change. Creating this environment will require the government to look at all possible avenues for increasing the pace of this innovation, and one of the best ways to do that is to be targeted with regulations and ensure it doesn’t benefit existing players in the market. Regulations are critically important, but it is worth noting that sometimes regulations can cause undue harm by benefiting entrenched interests. This is where the regulatory burden tends to help existing players and solutions in a market. The burden of complying with regulations may be too great or disadvantageous for newer competitors in the field. Policy makers must ensure that they use regulations carefully to effectively guide organizations to be more climate-conscious without inadvertently stifling innovation and business growth.

While the point of the solution above is to be mindful of over regulation, regulations are essential and most often result in positive change. Some regulations can advance environmental priorities. Specifically, in the federal government’s arms lies the responsibility to set national fuel efficiency standards for vehicles. The federal government can also set requirements for contractors who want to work with them. Orienting these tools to demand higher fuel economy standards and requiring federal contractors to reduce their emissions to conduct business with the federal government can quickly expedite the fight against climate change. This advance can be made swiftly at the discretion of the executive branch. Placing requirements on businesses is effective and can actively encourage organizations to become carbon-neutral or contribute to solutions for climate change. In addition to that, new fuel efficiency standards would incentivize organizations to innovate on electric cars, battery technologies, and more fuel-efficient gas or hybrid vehicles. All of these outcomes would hyper charge our approach to dealing with climate change.

The bottom line is that most of these solutions have strong bipartisan support, acknowledge the needs and concerns of a large majority of the electorate, and create a practical roadmap for where things can get done.

Conclusion

We face an overwhelming and life-changing threat in climate change that puts our nation’s stability, safety, and prosperity at risk. This isn’t a time for us to back down; as characterized by our resilience and our spirit as a nation, we can rise to the challenge in the face of such adversity. While climate policy has stalled in the past, it doesn’t have to be this way going forward. There is a clear pathway to fulfill both parties’ goals and the American people’s overwhelming desires, as illustrated above. The solutions listed above are broad-ranging and either have strong bipartisan, popular support or a chance to be implemented; but they won’t completely solve climate change. Instead, these solutions can unite a broad coalition of those concerned about the climate crisis and chart a more pragmatic path forward towards solving it while protecting our people, revitalizing communities, creating new opportunities for innovation, and potentially creating millions of jobs in the process.

We wanted to break down various solutions to the climate crisis but didn’t just want to end there. We’ve included several resources and steps that you can take to get involved:

  • Contact your government representative and write to them about potential bipartisan solutions.
  • Visit and consider joining organizations such as: the American Conservation Coalition, NRDC, Sierra Club, EDF, RepublicEn, The Climate Reality Project, and countless more dedicated to the fight against climate change whose mission may speak to you personally.
  • Educate others about potential solutions that do have a lot of support and have a chance of getting passed (i.e., share this article!)

The last thought we’d like to leave you with is a simple one:

“The Earth is a fine place and worth fighting for.” — Ernest Hemingway

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