On Sept. 27, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for the fifth time since its founding in 1988, issued a review of the current state of the world’s climate and what science is telling us about the future.
The IPCC, a United Nations body created and funded by governments, reviews the scientific research conducted worldwide and makes the conclusions available to policymakers and the public.
It has been understood since the early 20th century that carbon pollution in the earth’s atmosphere is growing due to the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon, the basic building block of life, is stored in plants, animals, soils and deep in the ocean, and is gradually released and re-stored as living things are born and die.
When we burn fossil fuels, we are releasing carbon that has been stored for eons both prematurely and quickly, adding carbon in its form of carbon dioxide molecules to the atmosphere.
Much of that extra carbon stays in the atmosphere for long periods of time, while some of it combines with oceans, increasing acidity beyond the tolerance of some marine animals. The extra carbon in the atmosphere also absorbs the infrared energy from the sun’s rays bouncing off the surface of the earth; energy that would otherwise escape into outer space. The result is a warming planet.
The consequences of this warming are severe for plants and animals whose natural habitats are changing. This, by the way, includes human animals whose modern industrial economies are responsible for the changes.
The litany of worries has been often recited: sea level rise, drought, flooding, wildfire, disease transmission and extreme weather events. These worries are not just future worries. They are present realities playing out around the world, and stand to become much more severe unless something is done.
For those who take the concept of stewardship of our planet’s environment to heart, action is needed to combat and reverse the effects of climate change.
Starting at home, we can take personal responsibility for how we consume energy, how we transport ourselves, what we do with the waste we generate and what businesses we support with our purchases. Next, we can work to spread the word by increasing popular knowledge about climate change — how it is happening, why it is happening and what can be done about it.
Finally, we can demand a political response on the part of elected officials at all levels to establish policies that will lead to a reduction of carbon in the atmosphere. Voters can make sure that the position on climate change of everyone running for office is on the record, as well as what they will do specifically to address it.
Climate change deniers and those without opinions are not the kind of leaders we need today.
On the political front, a good start will be the imposition of a fee on carbon at its source (such as a well or mine) or in the case of trade, applied at the border when non-carbon taxed goods are imported. Human psychology tells us we are likely to get the response we want if we tax the behavior we want to stop and reward the behavior we want to encourage. Funds collected through a carbon fee could be distributed back to households to cover the increased costs that will be passed along due to the fee. And over time businesses will invest in alternatives to fossil fuels in order to stay competitive with those that use renewable energy and are not taxed.
Make it personal. Make it popular. Make it political. All are important. But we can take major strides in the political arena as we move into the 2014 campaigns. Let’s take the opportunity to let candidates know climate change is a top priority.