For many Americans, climate change has long seemed like something remote in space and time, a crisis that would affect people in other places a long time into the future. For skeptics, it seemed like we didn’t have to prioritize climate mitigation in order to build a secure and prosperous American republic, even when thinking decades into the future. We are only just now beginning to see that the destabilization of Earth’s climate system is bringing real impacts directly into our communities, in the here and now.
The Third National Climate Assessment, released last month, makes this clear: Climate change is happening now, and it is affecting our economy and our daily lives in disruptive ways, and costs of dealing with this ongoing destabilization will only increase over time. In fact, the report specifically finds that “The observed warming and other climatic changes are triggering wide-ranging impacts in every region of our country and throughout our economy.”
The destabilization of historically reliable climate patterns is having an impact on every region across the U.S. Our region, the Northeast, is facing a number of serious costly impacts. Already, communities across our region are experiencing deeper and longer heat waves, “more extreme precipitation events, and coastal flooding due to sea level rise and storm surge.”
And not only coastal New Jersey is facing impacts. The dislocation of weather systems threatens to alter watershed ecology, the resilience of farming areas and the sustainability of green open spaces. The state’s normally lush, green, natural environment, fed by many local rivers and tributaries, with a low altitude above sea level, make the threat of saltwater intrusion a problem for most of the land area of the state.
Where agriculture faces increased soil salinization, water resources tend to be more stressed and farmers have to turn to chemicals to optimize productivity and reduce the threat from crop pests. Runoff from these practices can pose a sustained public health risk. The collapse or migration of coastal ecosystems, and the salinization of green spaces, are real costs that will deplete assets that help to drive some of the most reliable sources of prosperity in New Jersey’s economy.
What’s more, higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been shown to correspond to a decrease in the nutritional value of farmed plants. This means we need to produce more food to meet the same nutritional needs. And it is not just human beings, but also animals, insects and crop pests that require more plant life to get the necessary energy to sustain health. So the same atmospheric imbalance that is driving climate change also puts agriculture under added pressure and leads to less sustainable farming practices such as more intensive and widespread use of chemicals.
The result is food insecurity regionally and globally and the related degradation of human health. Water and air quality face long-term degradation, and in southern New Jersey, bark beetle infestation (the beetles have moved north as climate patterns shift) is already posing a mounting threat to the ecological integrity of the Pine Barrens.
These are real-world costs, and they are now unfolding in real time.
Last fall, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its Fifth Assessment Report, which also found that climate impacts are arriving much sooner than expected, and in every region of the world. Previous IPCC and NCA reports have been extremely conservative in their prognostications, because scientists were under heavy political pressure not to publish anything that would not qualify as irrefutable, hard fact. Contrary to what many in the political sphere believe, climate reporting has tended to understate, not overstate, future risks.
We have seen the skeptics’ questions taken with that level of seriousness, and year after year, hard science has become more refined, more precise and more comprehensive. We have seen the skeptics’ questions answered, and we are now watching ecological, agricultural, quality-of-life and other economic losses unfold.
The International Energy Agency recently released its report on the cost of escaping this mess. It found that just the last two years of inaction have added $8 trillion to future global costs.
With so many of the skeptics’ questions now answered by hard science, conservatives are starting to look for a solution that lines up with their values and their fiscal priorities. A revenue-neutral carbon fee and dividend plan, supported by former Reagan Secretary of State George Shultz and others would send a clear price signal to investors to transition away from climate-destabilizing practices, with no new government spending, no new bureaucracy and no new regulation.
The logic of responsible action is simple: New Jersey is facing real, long-term economic and environmental threats; so is our nation and so is the wider world. We can deal with these threats affordably, and prosper as a result. No one’s ideology should be an obstacle to supporting smart solutions.
Joseph Robertson is strategic coordinator for the nonpartisan, nonprofit volunteer organization Citizens’ Climate Lobby.
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Originally published June 10, 2014, as a guest op-ed in the Times of Trenton