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Stormy Weather and Climate Change

Stormy Weather and Climate Change

In early February 2008 , the world’s leading scientific body on global warming issued a report confirming what many of us have suspected: either we do something profound about greenhouse emissions or we will make our planet uninhabitable, if not for ourselves and our children, then for their children and the generations that might have come.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change minces few words in saying that global warming is indeed a fact and “very likely” caused by human activity, principally the burning of fossil fuels.

In effect, the battle is already lost. According to the report, the globe will continue the warming trend that began in the middle of the last century. More frequent heat waves, stronger storms, more devastating droughts, rapidly melting glaciers, and rising sea levels are coming our way no matter what we do.

The question the report asks is whether we have the will to change our behavior quickly enough to prevent this bad news from becoming horrific.

Even if we somehow stopped all greenhouse gas emissions immediately, global temperatures would still rise 1.1ºF by century’s end, according to the report. That would mean shutting down every plant, automobile, or device that runs on oil, coal, or natural gas today, while also stopping all rainforest destruction—an impossibility surely.

The IPCC report says we can only afford another 2.5ºF rise before the weather changes would become catastrophic. To decarbonize our economies quickly enough to slip below that threshold, scientists say we would need to cut emissions by 80% by 2050.

That’s a tall order, one that will require action at all levels, starting from local community groups such as our Democratic club and any pressure we can put on the political process going up the line.

Head-in-Sand Response
Predictably, the Bush Administration’s response to the IPCC report has been to bury its head even further in the increasingly warm sand. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists charge scientists at several federal agencies have been pressured repeatedly by Administration officials to remove references to “climate change” and “global warming” from documents they produce, including press releases and communications with Congress, that are likely to affect the public’s understanding of the impending crisis.

But the IPCC report and Al Gore’s moving film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” will make it much harder for politicians to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist or that they have no responsibility for addressing it. Already, Congress is considering several far-reaching measures this session:

* Safe Climate Act. Representative Henry Waxman’s (D-CA) bill aims to reduce US emissions 80% by 2050 through a flexible economy-wide cap-and-trade program for heat-trapping emissions.

* Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act. Introduced by now-retired Senator Jim Jeffords (I-VT), this bill also calls for an 80% reduction and will be carried forward by Barbara Boxer (D-CA), incoming chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

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* Global Warming Reduction Act. Introduced last September by John Kerry (D-MA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME), this act would freeze emissions levels in 2010 and then gradually reduce emissions each year to 65% below 2000 by 2050.

Back in 2008, Californians Boxer and Waxman were taking leading roles on global warming, Democrats in Los Angeles had a voice in these developments.

Acting Locally
Another way we can help is by doing our part here at home. The “An Inconvenient Truth” website lists dozens of ways individuals can cut down on the amount of carbon dioxide they generate through personal transportation, home energy use, and energy used to produce all the products we consume. As an example, our church’s social action committee replaced 100 light bulbs with compact fluorescent ones and 17 toilets with water-conserving versions, cutting the church’s water use 32% and electric use 21%. Other simple efforts include using a clothesline instead of a dryer, buying recycled paper products, and planting a tree.

The site also has a quiz you can take to estimate the amount of carbon dioxide you contribute each year. You plug in where you live, how many miles you commute, what kind of car you drive, how many plane flights you take, and what you spend monthly on electicity, natural gas, and propane. Once I plug in the monthly business flights I take and the 25 miles I commute down to Los Alamitos every day, my story unfortunately is told. I’d have to sit in the dark for the rest of my life to get my number down to the national average of 7.5 tons of carbon dioxide per year. But if public transportation could get me to my job—without putting me on the bus for hours on end—I’d have an easier time of it.

Two big ways we could have an impact here in Los Angeles would be to build a truly effective public transit system and counteract our suburban sprawl, two changes Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is exploring with city planners as part of the “Transit Villages” program. The idea would be to continue building out the City’s Metro Rail system and producing urban villages with high-quality, affordable developments that would encourage pedestrian traffic and mass transit use.

In Vancouver, B.C. last week, I saw how well that could work. Hemmed in by water on several sides and mountains on others, Vancouver had no choice but to build up, putting some of its most desirable residences in high-rise apartment buildings and condominium complexes right downtown. As a consequence, Vancouver’s city center is the place to be at night, not someplace to flee before the sun goes down. That same trend has begun here in Los Angeles, but will take persistence over many years to effect the 80% emissions reduction scientists say we’ll need.

Stormy Weather and Climate Change

What if the US undertook a massive public effort on the scale of the Apollo Project that put a man on the moon and brought him safely home? What if we had a president far-sighted enough to make the development of alternative energy sources and population control our generation’s glorious challenge, as space flight was for President John F. Kennedy’s:

“I believe this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”— Kennedy in his 1961 speech to Congress.

Indeed, here in Southern California, we have a launching pad for such an effort. Over the past six years, NASA has shifted its focus from the robotic space missions developed at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Lab to the much less scientifically productive, tremendously more expensive—shuttle flights cost $1 billion each—and much more dangerous manned space flights flown out of Texas’s Johnson Space Flight Center and Florida’s Kennedy Space Flight Center. Yes, that’s Jeb Bush’s Florida and George Bush’s Texas—and Nancy Pelosi’s and Jerry Brown’s and Xavier Becerra’s and Barbara Lee’s California—and it’s no good pretending the shift isn’t largely political, taking numerous jobs and many millions of dollars east to deeply red states.

dick price

With California Democrats holding powerful positions in the Democratic-controlled Congress, what if some smart presidential candidate launched a plan to use JPL’s facilities and scientists to develop technologies that would help solve the world’s carbon emissions crisis? I’d get on that bus.

—Dick Price