Guest Columnist

A year that will live in infamy: It's time to act on climate

Thousands of dead fish sit in a canal behind a home in Coral Shores, Fla., rotting and smelling. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in August 2018 for several counties due to red tide. (Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS)
Thousands of dead fish sit in a canal behind a home in Coral Shores, Fla., rotting and smelling. Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency in August 2018 for several counties due to red tide. (Tiffany Tompkins/Bradenton Herald/TNS)

Those of us who understand the existential threat posed by climate change have been waiting for the “Pearl Harbor moment” that galvanizes people and politicians alike into taking action to minimize that threat. It appears 2018 is turning out to be a “Pearl Harbor year,” where a majority of Americans support taking action, and we’re ready for Congress to press forward.

We thought the wake-up call on climate change occurred in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina slammed and devastated New Orleans, a disaster that left 1,836 people dead and displaced tens of thousands more. Four years later, when legislation to price carbon made a run in Congress, any sense of urgency to deal with climate change was lost amid partisan squabbling and pushback from special interests.

The next opportunity for action came in 2012 when Superstorm Sandy roared up the East Coast with a storm surge that put much of New York City under water. The cover of Bloomberg Businessweek proclaimed, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid.” But again, nothing happened. Likewise, last year’s back-to-back-to-back storms — Harvey, Irma and Maria — left a swath of destruction from Houston to Puerto Rico totaling some $300 billion in damage. This, too, was not enough to spur action.

Fortunately, more and more Americans are connecting the dots between extreme weather disasters and climate change. That increasing awareness of the impact climate change exerts on our lives is reflected in the latest polling from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

The Yale study found that 77 percent of U.S. adults support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant and that 68 percent support taxing fossil fuel companies while equally reducing other taxes. That support extends to all geographical areas of America, with majorities in all 50 states and all 435 congressional districts saying they favor a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

The Yale poll should come as no surprise, given that 2018 is turning out to be a Pearl Harbor year, not just a moment:

• Triple-digit temperatures in California have created conditions for the worst wildfires the state has ever experienced. In Redding, Calif., those conditions produced a fire tornado with wind speeds up to 165 mph and temperatures that likely exceeded 2,700 degrees.

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• Smoke from western wildfires is drifting east, creating hazardous breathing conditions in cities along the way.

• A combination of warmer water and nitrogen runoff from farms has produced the worst “red tide” ever seen in Florida. Manatees, sea turtles and millions of pounds of dead fish have washed up on beaches and affected the tourism industry.

• Hundreds of deaths around the world have been attributed to record-setting heat waves in places like Japan, where 119 people died and thousands were hospitalized.

Of all the trends related to climate change, the most encouraging is the growing movement to depoliticize the issue and get Republicans and Democrats talking to each other about solving the problem. There are now 86 members in the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, half Republican and half Democrat. In late July, the co-leader of the caucus, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) — joined by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) — introduced the first Republican-sponsored bill to price carbon in nearly a decade. Curbelo’s bill is a major crack in the dam holding back effective climate legislation, and that dam is likely to burst in the months to come.

As Congress returns from August recess and members make their final reelection push, my hope is that climate change becomes a bridge issue rather than the wedge issue it’s been for so many years. Throughout our history, Americans have set aside our differences and come together in times of crisis to turn back a common foe. We can and must do that now with climate change.

The terrifying vortex of fire that swept through Redding, Calif., is the latest Pearl Harbor moment for climate change in a year filled with such moments. Let us hope this year of infamy, together with the growing desire for action, will finally set the wheels in motion for Congress to enact meaningful solutions.

• Mark Reynolds is executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

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