The Environment and Elections

In a recent TED talk by Al Gore, he outlines clearly the challenges we face if we do not address climate change, but also gives hope by articulating the positive initiatives that are currently taking place to address the issue. He asks three questions. The first is “Do we really have to change?” He begins with the startling statistic that the amount of heat generated daily by manmade greenhouse gas pollution is equal to the same amount of heat energy that would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs. This trapped heat, he notes, is the cause of warming oceans and the increased water vapor and energy in the atmosphere which have led to stronger storms, extreme floods, and longer droughts. Extreme temperature events used to cover 0.1% of the Earth. Now they cover 14.5%. Fourteen of the fifteen hottest years on record have occurred since 2001 with 2015 being the hottest year ever. January of 2016 was the hottest January on record. The answer to that question given the data is unequivocally yes.

His second question is “Can we change?” and here he shows how change is already taking place on multiple fronts. Renewable energy sources are growing exponentially. The cost of solar energy alone has come down almost 10 percent every year for the past 30 years. Scientists tell us that enough solar energy reaches earth every hour to fill all the world’s energy needs for a full year. In the United States alone during 2015 sources for new electric generation capacity came from wind (38.2%), solar (32.8%), hydro, biomass and geothermal (2.3%), coal (0.01%) and oil (0.07%). Yet the government continues to subsidize the fossil fuel industry 40X more than renewables. Change can certainly happen if the political will is there.

The third question is “Will we change?” This question is up to us. In December of 2015, the United States was one of 195 countries who approved the Paris Agreement on climate change and agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is now our responsibility as citizens of a democracy to see that we keep our commitment to the world community.

The United States Department of Defense has issued the following statement: “Climate change will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic diseases, disputes over refugees and resources and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.” In other words, climate change has geopolitical consequences. Syria, where 1.5 million people moved to the cities because their land was no longer capable of sustaining crops and livestock, is an excellent example of this. Those 1.5 million people crowded into cities doubling the population in a very short time creating conditions for the violence and unrest we see today.

Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’ states that “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”  He goes on to say that “What is needed is a politics which is far-sighted and capable of a new, integral and interdisciplinary approach to handling the different aspects of the crisis…if politics shows itself incapable of breaking such a perverse logic, and remains caught up in inconsequential discussions, we will continue to avoid facing the major problems of humanity.

We have not only the privilege, but also the responsibility to vote. Following are some of the questions to consider when reading about or listening to candidates for public office:

How does each candidate talk about climate change?

Does he or she have any policies for addressing this issue?

What is his/her position on transitioning from dependency on fossil fuels toward clean energy alternatives?

Does he/she plan to honor the emissions-reduction commitments our nation made at the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris (the Paris Agreement)?

Will our nation honor its commitment to assist developing nations – who are least responsible for climate change but most impacted by it – in coping with threats such as increased droughts, floods, and sea-level rise by sharing clean energy technology and other support?

As Pope Francis has reminded us climate change is no longer open to debate. It is a reality which is “affecting millions of people daily and requires an examination of our lives and an acknowledgement of the ways in which we have harmed God’s creation through our actions and our failure to act”.

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