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Political forces compound climate-change difficulties

The climate emergency featured prominently in Earth Day messages this year, underscored by the recent publication of the third and final section of the massive climate assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Dick White

The framework for the report is the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement that set the goal of limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and an aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). A 2018 IPCC Special Report then documented the increasingly dire consequences that would follow as temperatures rise above the more ambitious goal. Already warming has reached 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) and impacts appear everywhere.

Across the West, scientists have documented the current drought as the most severe in 1,200 years; climate change has doubled the likelihood of its occurrence. As Western wildfires now occur virtually year-round, we realize that another major fire will strike Southwest Colorado again. As documented in last weekend’s Durango Herald, we prepare for the inevitable.

Unfortunately, such impacts will continue to worsen because of the warming momentum created by past greenhouse gas emissions. We have no choice but to adapt to the consequences, even as we seek to avoid more extreme future outcomes by reducing current emissions.

The April IPCC report concludes that global carbon emissions must peak no later than 2025 to keep the 1.5 degrees Celsius target within reach. As widely publicized, that requires immediate emissions reductions toward 50% by 2030 and global net zero emissions by 2050. The Biden administration emission targets align with these goals, but unbroken opposition by Senate Republicans and a coal-state Democrat have stalled decisive congressional action.

The six IPCC assessments since the early 1990s, which embody the scientific and political caution of consensus review, have expressed progressively increasing urgency. Unfortunately, they have failed to motivate corresponding policy action in the United States and most other countries.

The vast scale of the fossil-fuel economy and the need to change it in just one generation pose a daunting challenge, but political forces compound the difficulty.

Some opposition stems from electoral opportunism – Republican legislators opposing anything proposed by the Democrats. Some stems from decades of disinformation and lobbying by the fossil-fuel industry, seeking to maintain profits and avoid steep devaluation of their assets.

However, many scientists and climate activists have contributed by naively assuming that simply providing clear evidence would move the political dial. Psychological research has made clear, however, that value systems have much greater impact than information on political thinking.

Action sufficient to meet the Paris goals requires aggressive government policies anathema to political conservatives. Name-calling across the partisan divide cannot address this fundamental issue. Reconciliation for the common good requires patient civil dialogue, a rarity today. Locally, however, efforts have begun to revive the La Plata Civil Dialogue group that suspended meeting during the pandemic.

The political landscape may shift as more and more corporations recognize that climate change threatens profitability, as well as the well-being of shareholder and executive families. However, such societal changes occur slowly. Can they possibly occur fast enough?

I suspect that the few countries that reach the ambitious 2030 targets will include the U.S. However, every step we take to reduce emissions and to adapt to a warmer future will reduce physical and social impacts, and the associated human suffering and ecological damage. Likewise, every civil conversation we can have with people who disagree with us about the urgency of the climate emergency can help build common ground for addressing the crisis.

As articulated by Pogo, the famous Walt Kelly cartoon character, for Earth Day some five decades ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” All of us.

Dick White is a former two-term City Council member and served as mayor of Durango.