"Global warming is now large enough that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship to the greenhouse effect."
NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen spoke these words to a Senate committee 25 years ago this month. He went on to predict that extreme weather events like summer heat waves would likely follow. Since his June 24, 1988, presentation, thousands of scientific papers have affirmed Hansen's pronouncements.
As predicted, our climate has changed. Since Hansen's testimony, each decade has been warmer. The United States has endured record heat, drought, wildfires, storms and bark beetle infestation. Both scientists and insurance companies have documented that severe weather events are now three times more frequent and destructive than 40 years ago. This has happened as heat-trapping atmospheric carbon dioxide climbed to a record 400ppm, higher than any time in the past 3 million years.
During the time that our climate warmed and the science became more certain, powerful groups spent hundreds of millions of dollars to persuade politicians and the general public that the science was not settled. They worked to discredit prominent scientists, including Hansen. These groups were very successful. Progress on tackling climate change stalled. A promising bill to reduce greenhouse gasses was halted in the Senate.
Unfortunately, the Deseret News played into this narrative of political paralysis on climate change in a recent editorial ("Natural Disasters should be off limits," June 4). The editorial claimed no political action by the United States alone would have an effect on global warming because China and India are such big polluters. This argument completely overlooks the potential of a U.S. law that would put a tax on carbon. The tax would be levied on the source of carbon pollution (the port, well, or mine) with all of the revenues returned to the American people. But this tax would include border adjustments, taxing the carbon used in producing imported goods. Soon major importers like China and India would likely decide to establish their own carbon tax and keep the revenue themselves, or face stronger competition from American goods. In addition, with its own commitment to greenhouse gas reduction, the United States would be in a position to make bilateral agreements with other big carbon polluters like China. Such a tax would use the market to drive a transition to clean energy.
Fortunately, after 25 years, politicians from both sides of the aisle are warming to the idea of addressing climate change. President Obama told the nation in his inaugural address that he would act on climate change, a move that he later affirmed in his State of the Union address. Last week Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., called for a broad move to clean energy, asking that we heed the recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences and other scientific bodies. And many Republicans outside of Congress are calling for a carbon tax, including former Secretary of State George Schultz, former Virginia Congressman Bob Inglis, and George Mankiw, economic adviser to George W. Bush.
Hansen's 25-year-old message on climate change is more urgent today than ever. Isn't it time to end political paralysis and begin the national transition to safe, clean energy?
David Folland is a retired pediatrician from Sandy who volunteers with Citizens Climate Lobby.