A Failure to Act Against Climate Change Now Risks Lives

Truman Project
Nov 30, 2018 · 11 min read
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Released the day following Thanksgiving, a report by 13 federal agencies declared that if steps to combat climate change are not taken immediately, the American economy will suffer severely by the end of the century. This report stands in direct contradiction to the Trump Administration’s claims that their overthrow of environmental regulations and treaties will foster economic growth, as well as highlights the stark consequences the world will — and in some cases already do — face in our economy, health, and home if we fail to act now.

DEVASTATING EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE

The science behind climate change has long been conclusive. As more greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide become released into and then trap heat within the atmosphere, the earth steadily warms, causing ice to melt and ocean temperatures to rise. These oceanic changes result in rising sea levels, withering coral reefs, and more frequent and extreme hurricanes; meanwhile, on land, greater swings in temperature produce more severe droughts, wildfires, flooding, and winter storms. All of these changes in climate, in turn, spur actions by or consequences that affect humans, including mass migration, rapid urbanization, resource shortages, and increased poverty, famine, or disease — most of which contribute to greater instability around the world.

A report released in October by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underscored the fact that these devastating consequences of climate change have worsened and will only continue to do so in the absence of worldwide action. Essentially, the IPCC report states that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate, the atmosphere will warm by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels by 2040; this rise in temperature will only accelerate downrange consequences. To prevent this rise, greenhouse pollution must drop 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050; plus, use of coal must drop from the about 40 percent today to between 1 and 7 percent. Instead of taking any steps to at least mitigate the rise in temperature, President Trump instead expressed heavy skepticism about the report, going so far as to insinuate that it was politically motivated: “It was given to me. And I want to look at who drew it. You know, which group drew it. I can give you reports that are fabulous, and I can give you reports that aren’t so good.”

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION’S ENVIRONMENTAL ROLLBACKS

Unfortunately, the president’s doubt regarding climate change is nothing new. Just this week, he plainly stated that “people like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers” in viewing the threats posed by climate change as a global problem.

This wildly ignorant statement is perfectly in line with actions his administration has taken since last year to undermine environmental protections and thereby hinder efforts to counter the effects of climate change. For instance, under the Trump Administration, more than 75 environmental regulations aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting threatened animals and habitats have met their end. The president also withdrew from the Paris Climate Agreement, which was a historic step towards fighting the threat of climate change since every country — big and small, rich and poor — committed to pulling its weight in keeping the global increase in temperature below two degrees Celsius. President Trump has also overseen the rollback of national fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, replacement of the Clean Power Plan, weakening of requirements for energy companies to monitor and fix methane leaks, and overhaul of pollution standards for coal-burning power plants. Specifically regarding the latter, the administration even ignored its own analysis, which warned that the new rules on power plants using coal would lead to as many as 1,400 premature deaths, up to 15,000 new cases of upper respiratory problems, and tens of thousands of missed days of school each year by 2030 due to increased pollutants in the atmosphere.

Yet, the administration has not always ignored climate analysis; sometimes, they actively suppress it. Reports emerged this past May that the Trump Administration had revised a Defense Department report so as to de-emphasize the threat that climate change poses to the U.S. military. The earlier draft had been far more direct in stating the very clear threats that our military bases and installations across the globe face from drought, severe wind, and flooding. The final report submitted to Congress in January 2018, however, downplayed issues such as sea level rise, which will incur costs for base repairs and maintenance, and the influence of higher temperatures on the ability to train troops. In doing so, the administration chose to cast aside studies that rising sea level rise will submerge 18 military installations along the eastern coast by the end of the century. The studies indicate that by 2050, most of those bases will have 10 times the number of floods they already experience, risking infrastructure, training grounds, and housing for thousands.

For the president and his allies, ignoring all of this information and rolling back all these reforms are supposedly necessary for lessening pressure on the fossil fuel industry and increasing economic growth. However, according to an report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program — a group of 13 federal agencies including the Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, and NASA — the failure to combat climate change will ultimately cause the U.S. economy to suffer greatly by the century’s end. More specifically, the report states that up to 10 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product could be slashed by 2100 due to the effects of climate change, such as wide-ranging wildfires, crop failures, and crumbling infrastructure. Some of the highest costs include $141 billion for heat-related deaths, $118 billion from rises in sea level, and $32 billion for infrastructure damage.

It is indisputable that every part of the country will face, or has already faced, the devastating consequences of climate change — and things are only getting worse. It is therefore worth examining in depth how climate change made recent hurricanes such as Maria and Florence all the more destructive, as well as exacerbated the wildfires in California this month. Yet, despite this extraordinary suffering on their watch, the Trump Administration continues to refuse to take up the fight to protect our country both now and in the future.

WORSENING HURRICANES

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, leaving a staggering number of people dead and tremendous wreckage all across the island in its wake. Even seven months later, in April, more than 33,000 power customers in Puerto Rico remained in the dark, while other areas on the island continued to experience multiple blackouts. Without electricity, water pumps and sewage systems failed to function, leaving residents to turn to natural sources of water — many of which were contaminated.

Puerto Rico put the official death toll at 64 until August 2018, when the George Washington University released an independent study stating that there were 2,975 more deaths in the wake of the storm than would have otherwise occurred. This study, requested by the Puerto Rican government, confirmed that there were far more deaths than the initial toll — a conclusion that many news organizations and academic institutions had already suggested. Both President Trump and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Brock Long cast doubt on the higher death toll: The president said straight out that “3000 people did not die,” and Long commented that the studies on the number of deaths from the hurricane were “all over the place” and that he did not know why “the studies were done.” Even as the administration quarreled with the new counts, it transferred nearly $10 million from FEMA funding that could have been used to help Puerto Rico to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the start of the implementation of the zero tolerance policy at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Despite the denials and doubt emanating from the Trump Administration, FEMA did officially conclude that the government failed to respond effectively to the crisis on the island after the hurricane in its official after-action report. The report stated that there were personnel shortages, a severe lack of aid supplies, and difficulties with logistics and communication in the first 72 hours following the hurricane. FEMA further admitted that they had little understanding of conditions on the island, and even a week after the hurricane, had only assessed half of the wastewater treatment sites and gathered information on 32 of 69 hospitals.

Hurricane Maria undeniably devastated Puerto Rico, and the destruction was in large part due to the fact that the hurricane was made all the worse by climate change. Over the past 40 years, there has been a sharp increase in intense hurricane activity due to how global warming has prompted a rise in sea levels and ocean temperatures. The resultant warm water and warm air then serve as fuel for hurricanes, making them bigger and stronger in terms of higher wind speeds and greater rainfall. In particular, the greater rainfall can be devastating in that it leads to more severe storm surges, which already have a high starting point given elevated sea levels. For instance, in just about one day, Hurricane Maria dropped more than two feet of rain on the island, all while winds whipped around at 150 mph. In such conditions, the storm surges, battered infrastructure, and high death toll were inevitable — even more so when also considering how the administration had walked back measures meant to mitigate the effects of climate change and failed to provide adequate assistance to the island.

Hurricane Maria does not stand alone: Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, as well as Florence this year were all made worse by climate change. Such destructive storms will only continue and worsen all the more if the Trump Administration stays its course in undermining the very policies and agreements aimed at combating the threatening effects of climate change. The same goes for other natural disasters — such as wildfires, which have laid waste to California this past month.

WORSENING WILDFIRES

Climate change also contributes to worsening wildfires: When greater greenhouse gas emissions lead to higher temperatures, this causes forests and vegetation to be drier and primes conditions for otherwise natural and healthy fires to run out of control. On 08 November, Camp Fire ignited in Butte County, California, and quickly became the state’s deadliest wildfire. Until it was finally contained on 25 November, Camp Fire killed at least 85, with nearly 300 people still unaccounted for at the time of writing, and burned 153,000 acres, leaving more than 18,000 structures in ashes. Meanwhile, farther south, the Woolsey Fire ignited in Ventura County, right beside Los Angeles, ultimately killing 3 and burning more than 96,000 acres.

While the wildfires continued to blaze through California, concerns over the health risks rose. For instance, the smoke emanating from the fires was filled with soot and other particles and therefore caused the Bay Area’s air quality to hit a “very unhealthy” level, a rating just one away from the even worse “hazardous” level. Pieces of the chemicals, plastics, pesticides, metals, and other hazardous materials from the now burned structures made the smoke extra detrimental to people’s health, as these tiny particles can become embedded in the lungs and flow through the circulatory system. Studies have shown that during wildfires, heart attacks and strokes increase within vulnerable populations, which includes people older than 65, children younger than 4, and those with existing health problems. Furthermore, this heavily polluted smoke, given the little wind, remained stagnant over San Francisco for days, heightening these risks, and in cities all around the fires — even in some more than 100 miles away from the Camp Fire — stores sold out of respiratory masks, vulnerable residents checked into hospitals, schools closed, and public transportation shut down.

Two days after the fires ignited, President Trump commented, saying, “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor…Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!” This remark came after he approved a major disaster declaration for the state, which opened up federal funds, allowing FEMA to send more than $12.7 million towards those affected by the wildfires. This funding included grants for housing, home repairs, and loans, as well as for a disaster recovery center where residents could file insurance claims and seek grants for food and shelter. In other words, the president apparently threatened to cut California off from very necessary federal assistance for its suffering residents based on a nonsense remark about a topic on which he is thoroughly ignorant — a move that local leaders and firefighters’ organizations rightly and fiercely criticized.

Just as with the hurricanes, wildfires are made all the more severe by the changing climate — and people are the ones left to sacrifice and suffer. With all the reports reaffirming this fact, the Trump Administration could be taking action, but the president, in his ignorance, refuses to do so and instead undermines policies and agreements that would combat climate change and its fatal, devastating consequences.

PATH FORWARD

With an administration so opposed to taking action against climate change, states now shoulder responsibility — which they have already taken up with great determination, for example, both after President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement and rolled back regulations on greenhouse gases in air conditioners and refrigerators. The critical next steps that can be taken in this fight against climate change, as the report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program suggests, include putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions (which would involve a tax or fee on companies that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere), establishing regulations on levels of pollution from greenhouse gases, and investing money in research of clean energy technology.

This will be far from an easy fight, and the world as a whole has a long way to go. After all, the United Nations just recently reported that due to increased emissions of carbon dioxide and a failure to take actions to mitigate such emissions, countries around the world have failed to reach the two degree Celsius mark agreed upon in the Paris Agreement; in fact, if countries maintain their current emission targets, global temperatures would actually increase by the century’s end. And, as evidence above, this warmer world would lead to a suffering economy; ever-worsening natural disasters, such as hurricanes and wildfires; and severe health risks, such as heat stress, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal diseases, and increased vectors for infectious diseases as well.

Despite these harrowing predictions, time remains for action to be taken, and if the Trump Administration insists on failing to do so, states must step forward. The future depends on it.

Shannon Bugos is the Communications and Writing Manager at Truman National Security Project and the editor-in-chief of the Doctrine Blog. Views expressed here are her own.

Truman Doctrine Blog

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Truman Project

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We unite veteran, frontline civilian, political, & policy leaders to develop & advance strong, smart & principled solutions to global challenges Americans face.

Truman Doctrine Blog

We unite veteran, frontline civilian, political, & policy leaders to develop & advance strong, smart & principled solutions to global challenges Americans face.

Truman Project

Written by

We unite veteran, frontline civilian, political, & policy leaders to develop & advance strong, smart & principled solutions to global challenges Americans face.

Truman Doctrine Blog

We unite veteran, frontline civilian, political, & policy leaders to develop & advance strong, smart & principled solutions to global challenges Americans face.

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