Michael Spaeth: Time to act

BY MICHAEL SPAETH

Published August 12, 2012

Last week, my hometown finally received a considerable amount of rain after weeks of miserably high temperatures and minimal precipitation. It was a welcome relief and a bit of a surprise — I was so accustomed to the lack of rain that I almost forgot that it’s supposed to rain every now and then during the summer.

Unfortunately, many people across the country have been suffering from an even more severe absence of rain. According to the Aug. 7 Drought Monitor map, 52.27 percent of the U.S. and Puerto Rico is “in moderate drought or worse” and 38.48 percent is “in severe drought or worse.” The PBS NewsHour also noted during its Friday broadcast that the U.S. Department of Agriculture “now projects 10.8 billion bushels of corn to be produced,” which is “the lowest average corn yield in 15 years.”

A few people have been citing global warming as the cause of recent record-breaking hot temperatures and droughts. In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, James Hansen, who directs the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote that “it is no longer enough to say that global warming will increase the likelihood of extreme weather and to repeat the caveat that no individual weather event can be directly linked to climate change. To the contrary, our analysis shows that, for the extreme hot weather of the recent past, there is virtually no explanation other than climate change.”

While some aren’t convinced that global warming is the cause of the current drought, an increasing number of reputable voices are emphasizing the monumental threats that global warming poses for our planet. In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, Prof. Richard Muller from the University of California, Berkeley declared he is “a converted skeptic” about global warming. He wrote that the results of a recent analysis conducted by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project “show that the average temperature of the earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases.”

If global warming is contributing to the current drought, then this summer should be a loud wake-up call for people all over the country that we need to get serious about dealing with climate change. And even if global warming isn’t connected to this particular drought, we still need to take action to prevent ourselves from inflicting further damage on our planet — before it’s too late.

So far, President Barack Obama seems to be concerned about climate change. In an interview with Rolling Stone earlier this year, Obama outlined a few steps that he wants to take to help deal with global warming: “Doubling fuel-efficiency standards on cars is going to take a whole lot of carbon out of our atmosphere. We’re going to continue to push on energy efficiency, and renewable energy standards, and the promotion of green energy.” He also believes that we can find a way to address climate change “that is entirely compatible with strong economic growth and job creation — that taking steps, for example, to retrofit buildings all across America with existing technologies will reduce our power usage by 15 or 20 percent. That's an achievable goal, and we should be getting started now.”

In his op-ed, Hansen proposed the establishment of “a gradually rising fee on carbon collected from fossil-fuel companies, with 100 percent of the money rebated to all legal residents on a per capita basis” to help reduce global warming. He argued that “this would stimulate innovations and create a robust clean-energy economy with millions of new jobs.”

These ideas are certainly much more promising than those of Mitt Romney, who said in October that “we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet.” His running mate, Paul Ryan, wrote in December 2009, “Unilateral economic restraint in the name of fighting global warming has been a tough sell in our communities, where much of the state is buried under snow.” But no matter what we decide to do, we need to make sure that we take decisive action to deal with climate change right now, before we damage our planet beyond repair.

We can’t wait until we’re suffering from natural disasters to start seriously addressing global warming. We have to take action now, so that these natural disasters will never happen in the first place.

Michael Spaeth can be reached at micspa@umich.edu.