Szuhaj: Climate Change Is A Non-Partisan Issue

An issue as existential as climate change must be one-sided.

by Ben Szuhaj | 11/2/18 2:10am

With the United States’ midterm elections looming, the push to “get out the vote” is in full-swing. As it should be — only 61 percent of registered voters went to the polls in 2016. Perhaps even more surprising is that 2016 set the record for voter turnout in a presidential election. If we take a closer look at the 137.5 million voters who actually, well, voted, we see something else surprising: close to 90 percent of people reported they would vote along party lines. This tribalistic divide in the American civic body mirrors the partisan divide in Congress, where party unity voting has increased from sixty percent in the early 1970s to 90 percent in 2017.

To most, these statistics make sense: many of us have an intuitive sense of the deepening schism separating the two ends of the American political spectrum. In some ways, this bifurcation makes sense: politicians have risen to power on the backs of party loyalists. Media outlets have followed suit and set out to capture certain concentrated audiences, tailoring content to fit the wants of an archetypal viewer, be they a coal miner from West Virginia or a hairdresser from the Bronx. In some ways, this behavior is difficult to criticize — at least insofar as it is the seemingly natural result of a neoliberal paradigm, one that puts the accumulation of capital above all else. This paradigm has led to increasing deregulation and economic growth; it also led to the 2008 financial crisis, and, perhaps less obviously, to the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. Why institute a carbon tax when you suspect other countries won’t follow suit? Rational economic behavior in a short-term model dictates renege — break the Paris Accord. But if one expands their perspective, and thinks a little bigger — about say, the survival of our species — then a political philosophy that embraces the collective challenge of climate change begins to make sense. We all benefit from action. We all suffer from inaction.

But maybe you don’t “believe” in climate change, or maybe you know it’s happening but don’t think it’s a big deal. If that’s the case, then at least one can start somewhere: All parties agree the Earth is getting hotter. It is getting hotter at a rate that far exceeds that of any natural process. Humans are making the Earth hotter, and we are doing that mainly through the release of greenhouse gasses. As emissions increase in concentration, they more effectively trap heat that would otherwise reflect off the surface of the Earth and back into space.

So at least we can agree on that. These are facts (thank goodness!). But maybe you don’t see any reason to get worked up over the two degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures that was decided upon in the Paris Agreement to be the maximum allowable temperature increase due to carbon emissions. Perhaps you don’t mind that at the current rate of carbon emissions, global temperatures are already set to rise more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040. It’s conceivable that you don’t care that failing to reduce carbon emissions will lead to an increase in violent storms, droughts and wildfires, as well as extinction of a vast array of planet and animal species, and the ensured annihilation of the polar ice caps.

If that doesn’t faze you, let me point out how complex and nefarious the issue of climate change really is. The Earth is a complicated, interconnected system. A change to one part of the system often affects many other parts in unforeseen and dramatic ways. For example, shrinking polar ice caps are not only causing a rise in sea levels, they are also accelerating the rate at which the Earth is heating up. That is because ice, a white surface, has a much higher albedo (otherwise known as reflectivity) than sea water. It is essentially the difference between wearing a black t-shirt or a white t-shirt on a hot day, and it means that the polar ice caps are melting and the oceans are rising (and will continue to rise) at an accelerating rate.

Even if we keep global warming capped at a two-degree Celsius increase by 2100 — a rate we are already outstripping — we can expect a sea rise between one and two meters by the end of the century. And while a meter or two might not sound bad, consider that over 40 percent of the world’s population lives in coastal areas — areas that will soon be underwater. Yes, steps can be taken to protect certain coastal areas. Manhattan, for instance, will be protected at all costs. But the vast majority of coastal villages, towns and cities will disappear. And that is only the result of the minimum rise of one to two meters. In reality, it will very likely be much, much worse. As I mentioned before, the loss of ice creates a positive feedback loop. Even if we stopped emitting carbon altogether, global sea levels would still go up. Ice takes a long time to melt, and the temperature increase that would guarantee at least a meter of sea level rise by 2100 would also commit us to an additional six—yes six—meters in the decades to follow. Let that sink in for a second. Six meters. The entire state of Florida, for comparison, is on average just six feet above sea level.

If any of these grim predictions are infuriating, upsetting, or scary — good. They should be. Climate change is a very, very big problem that will require a very big, very concerted global effort to be solved. But for that coalition to form, politicians need to begin to view climate change not as a partisan issue, but as an everybody issue. Climate change requires a coordinated global response much like the one that opposed the rise of Nazi Germany. Sadly, that response only formed once the biggest nations involved realized what they stood to lose if they remained on the sidelines. So, with that in mind, I’d like to point out that climate change is as much an economic problem as it is a scientific one. A best-case scenario of one to two meters of sea level rise would mean a GDP reduction of up to eight percent for upper income countries like the United States. That reduction would cause a ripple effect through the US economy, snuffing out business and government programs alike. And that’s only from the best-case scenario involving one consequence of climate change: sea level rise. It does not consider the increasingly frequent food and water shortages, the damage from natural disasters, the displaced peoples — among other consequences. Put another way: climate change is not only the most salient threat to the long-term survival of our species, it is also the most pressing not-quite-short-enough-yet-to-make-us-care-threat to our stability, comfort and ability to lead regular, fulfilling lives.

I want to end this article by acknowledging that stating that climate change isn’t fun. For many, it is a depression and fear-inducing abstract boogeyman against which we can do little to act. In some ways, that notion is true — there is very little that you and I can do to combat climate change. There are things we can do to limit the waste we produce, to keep our neighborhoods clean, to reduce our personal carbon footprint. But the sad reality is, like with money, the clear majority of carbon is “owned” and emitted by a minority of people. Seventy-one percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from just 100 companies. Unsurprisingly, for a long time these companies have avoided paying what many economists consider a fair price per ton for damages inflicted from the carbon they emit. That is something we can change. We may not have a direct say in the daily operations of the companies driving climate change, but in less than a week we can and should play a significant part in electing the people who serve to regulate them.