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Our government officials and legislators have plenty of things to work on these days — both at the national and local levels. The economy, health care, education, two wars and state budget cuts — the list goes on and on. But there is a giant looming behind these issues that is more important than all of them: global climate change. Bad decisions or inaction in any of the other areas — even the wars — can have serious consequences but can be remedied. But if we don’t take prompt, effective action on climate change, the consequences verge on catastrophic and cannot be remedied. A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that changes in surface temperature, rainfall and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped.
This is particularly important to us in New Mexico, since the data indicate that we could face permanent drought conditions comparable to the dust bowl of the 30s. An analysis by the Nature Conservancy indicates that New Mexico’s average annual temperature would spike by 8.6 degrees by 2100. This would have a huge economic impact on the state.
Beyond the direct impacts are threats to our national security. A New York Times article (Oct. 8, 2009) notes that military and intelligence analysts said, “The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics.” This indicates that government spending to mitigate climate change may be as important to national security as the expenditures we make on weapon systems (missile defense, naval and air power, nuclear deterrent forces) to preclude or allow us to prevail in future wars.
There are useful actions we can take in our personal lives and at the local and state level. Many of us are using public transit, installing compact fluorescent bulbs, insulating and sealing our homes better, buying more fuel — efficient cars and taking other steps to reduce our carbon footprint. Los Alamos County has a strong sustainability program and New Mexico has implemented a number of programs to combat climate change.
However, effective action at the national level is essential if we are to avert the worst of the effects of climate change. And getting this action will be very difficult for several reasons.
Some people still argue that global climate change will not happen. You may recall that not long ago there were scientists, funded by gasoline companies, who contended that lead in gasoline was not a health problem. Other scientists, funded by tobacco companies, insisted that smoking did not harm human health. Similarly, some current studies funded by coal and oil companies, which could lose money if there were a major shift to renewable energy, contend that we do not have to worry about global warming. But there is an overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that climate change, caused by carbon dioxide emission, is both real and an urgent problem.
There is also opposition from people who, for ideological reasons, are opposed to any large government program (except defense). They tend to deny climate change because to accept it would mean accepting the need for major government intervention in the economy.
There are substantive arguments about how best to prevent climate change. Basic economics tells us that if you want people to use less of something, you need to make it more expensive. Either a cap and trade program or a carbon tax will raise the cost of energy, which is necessary if we want to reduce use. How much impact this might have on our economy, how these costs would be apportioned and what mechanisms might be used to mitigate the effects on those who can least afford it are serious questions of social justice. These are difficult questions, but they are not insurmountable. In addition, current studies indicate that the cost of mitigation can be relatively low.
We are fortunate that Senators Bingaman and Udall and Representative Lujan believe that global climate change is a serious problem that must be addressed. But they need your calls, e-mails or letters to let them know that their constituents support strong action. In addition, you can encourage your friends and family to contact their legislators. Legislation tends to follow, not lead public opinion. So the more people there are speaking up for action, the better our chances of success.
Climate change is a slow process and does not have as great an emotional impact on our country as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or the terrorist attacks on 9/11. But in the long run it is likely to be a more serious threat than either of these attacks.