On June 23, 1988, James Hansen of the NASA Goddard Space Institute gave testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources warning Congress and the nation that the earth was getting warmer because of the greenhouse effect. He urged Congress to act to limit carbon dioxide emissions and begin moving the nation’s energy away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources that do not emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
At that time, the amount of carbon dioxide measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii had reached 350 parts per million from the pre-industrial level of 280 ppm. James Hansen testified to the committee that anthropogenic global warming was already happening and delivered an urgent call to limit carbon emissions.
That was almost 33 years ago. Since then the level of atmospheric carbon has risen to over 417 parts per million and is continuing to rise. It alarms me that we have known about what increasing CO2 is doing to this planet for at least over 33 years and we know why it is happening, (because since the start of the Industrial Revolution, we have added more than 2 trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas) and yet, in spite of everything we have done in that time to try to prevent it, carbon emissions continue going up year after year.
Over these 33 years there have been many international conferences and agreements beginning in Rio in 1992 to Kyoto in 1997 to Copenhagen in 2009 to Paris in 2016. But still carbon emissions keep going up.
The governments of the world, and especially the government of the United States, are failing miserably to address the threat of global climate change. How do I know this? Because the measurement of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is continuing to rise.
Since Dr. Hansen’s testimony in 1988, the U.S. has sustained 273 weather-related disasters (including hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, floods, droughts, heatwaves and storms) in which overall damages and costs reached or exceeded $1 billion each. With a cumulative total cost of $2 trillion and the loss of over 14,000 lives it is becoming clear to me that we have not done nearly enough to stop climate change and we are running out of time. It is unconscionable that 33 years after we learned of the causes and the future effects of climate change that fossil fuels are still providing over 83 percent of our energy needs.
Climate scientists have already told the world what we must do to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which is the point at which we’ll see the worst effects of climate change. But at the rate we are burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon into the atmosphere, we are failing in our effort to hold global warming to 2 degrees. Scientists now are warning we are more likely to see future warming of over 3 or 4 degrees. The scenarios of what the world will be like from those temperature increases are terrifying.
Globally and nationally, we have yet to “flatten the curve” of emissions and until we do it means that we are failing on the issue of climate change. I believe we are facing a climate emergency and we and our children’s and grandchildren will face the consequences of that failure.
In his book called “Storms of My Grandchildren” dedicated to his grandchildren Sophie and Connor, Hansen concluded with what he believes are the two most important tasks to halt catastrophic climate change:
“The most essential actions are, first, a significant and continually rising price on carbon emissions … This is the most important requirement for moving the world to the clean energy future beyond fossil fuels, but a carbon price alone is inadequate. Second, the public must demand a strategic approach that leaves most fossil carbon in the ground.”
There are many proposals being put forth as tools to mitigate climate change that would create financial disincentives on carbon emissions but we have not implemented them. We committed to the world in the 2016 Paris Agreement to make progress on our climate budget but we have not done so.
We have an opportunity with a new president and a Democratic majority in Congress that is supportive of action on climate change and we must take advantage of this opportunity. But it is vitally important that we not only do something about climate change, but that what we do is proportional to the size and urgency of the problem.
We must implement limits to carbon emissions that dramatically flatten the curve in the measurement of CO2 and bring that measurement back to 350 ppm or lower from the current level of 417 ppm. That is what we must take action on now.