(This essay was originally published as “Policies Must Respect, Protect Mother Nature,” on January 29, 2016, in the Newport Daily News.)
The storms and low temperatures of the past few weeks remind us of the power and beauty of Mother Nature, something to be admired, respected, and protected.
On the larger weather front, both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA jointly announced that 2015 was the warmest year since systematic record-keeping began in 1880. The average global temperature was 1.62 degrees (F) above the 20th century average. Beyond this, scientists in the United Kingdom announced that the average global temperature for the first time had reached one degree Celsius (1.8 degree F) above pre-industrial levels.
This was no surprise to Denny Ingram, a Newport lobsterman for 30 years, who was recently quoted speaking about the changes in weather, “It seems to be accelerating over the last 10 years. December now seems like October. Everything is a little out of whack.”
The key driver of the recent climate change, especially for the last 50 years, has been the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In March of last year, for the first time in human history, the concentration reached 400 parts per million, according to the NOAA. As scientists Andrew Dessler and Edward Parson have indicated, the increase in concentration matches the fossil-fuel sources in quantity, isotopic mix, and timing.
In all the arguments I have heard from those skeptical of the human role in this or its seriousness, I have never heard any address this rise in carbon dioxide and its proven connection to global warming. The amounts of it that we have pumped into the air are staggering. The journal, Nature Climate Change, reported that in 2010, we pumped over 38 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air from the burning of fossil fuels, about a billion tons more than in 2009. According to the Global Carbon Project report of September 2014, written by scientists, the figure had grown close to 40 billion tons in 2013, up from just over 39 billion in 2012. Skeptics cannot explain what Mother Nature does with all this so that we can continue business as usual. But of course Mother Nature follows physics and does favors for no one.
Rhode Island is especially vulnerable to sea level rise, an important consequence of temperature rise. As recently reported by Rep. Lauren Carson, head of a state legislative commission studying the economic impact of this rise, 21 of the state’s 39 municipalities have historic property within the Narragansett Bay’s flood plain. Newport is exceptionally vulnerable. Melissa Barker, Newport’s geographic information systems coordinator, indicated that 600 Newport businesses, 23 percent of all its roads, and nearly 1000 historic structures, are located within the flood plain. Barker also reported that the NOAA has predicted that sea level in Newport will rise one foot by 2035, and two feet by 2050.
Consumers are benefitting from the international oil glut. Its price has tumbled from $105 per barrel to less than $30 in one and a half years. A few weeks ago, I was certainly happy to see gasoline dip below $2.00/gallon in Providence, soon reaching that level here on Aquidneck Island. The time is propitious then for actions to adapt to and to mitigate climate change.
- At the national level, it is time to place a price on carbon emissions, either through a tax or a cap and trade system, the latter which China plans to institute.
- Second, at the state level, levy a “climate-change tax” on gasoline and diesel rather than the proposed truck toll.
With the funds generated from these two sources:
- Build new infrastructure to adapt to sea level rise.
- To prepare for more extreme weather, bury as many utilities as possible.
- Subsidize technology companies researching renewables.
- Enact tax incentives for businesses which switch to renewables and are striving to reduce their carbon footprint.
- Prepare education modules for our public schools to teach our children about sustainable living.
- Fix the state’s crumbling infrastructure.
It is time to get serious about mitigating our carbon footprint and about adapting to the effects of our fossil-fueled lifestyle.
Fred Zilian (www.zilianblog.com) teaches environmental politics at Salve Regina University.