Editorial: Time running out to address climate change

Neglect of climate change portends risk to coastal states like Florida and future generations.
Neglect of climate change portends risk to coastal states like Florida and future generations.
Published May 17, 2013

The big threat to Florida's future that elected leaders aren't talking about: the average amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the past 10 days, two different groups of scientists have reported the heat-trapping gas has reached the neighborhood of 400 parts per million — a level not seen for millions of years and not since sea levels were 60 to 80 feet higher.

But amid another partisan week of politics in Washington, there was minimal reaction to estimates that in less than 25 years the planet could suffer irreversible damage. Nor was there acknowledgement that long-term worldwide efforts — including the lackadaisical strategies by biggest carbon polluters China and the United States — are nowhere near what is needed to slow the trend. Such neglect portends significant risk to coastal states like Florida and future generations.

To get a sense of how quickly human activity has altered CO2 levels, scientists study ancient air bubbles in Antarctic ice. For about the last 8,000 years, which represents the age of human civilization, CO2 levels measured around 280 parts per million in the atmosphere. But since the start of the Industrial Revolution, after the burning of fossil fuels accelerated, levels of greenhouse gases have spiked 41 percent. Hitting the 400 parts per million mark, the highest daily average ever recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, brings the planet closer to 450 ppm, the maximum level nations have set if the world is to prevent massive damage from global warming. At this rate, experts say the planet will hit that point in under 25 years.

A hotter planet will be susceptible to long droughts, reduced polar ice, higher sea levels and more acidic oceans. The changes will wreak havoc on food and water supplies, infrastructure, human habitation and economic stability, especially for the billions of humans who live on or near coastlines like Florida's.

Last year, a study commissioned by the CIA and other intelligence agencies issued a warning that the acceleration of climate change will spark conflicts and human migration of such magnitude that it will strain the American military. The Defense Department has no doubt about the climatic impact humans are having. It has already spent billions of dollars to adapt to the changes, including by making ships and vehicles more fuel-efficient.

Blame for the planet's predicament can be laid throughout the developed and developing world, but — relative to population — the United States has done more than any other country to contribute to the problem. Our nation owes it to future generations to invest in efforts to undo the damage. But Republican leaders' aversion to the science of climate change is blocking reforms such as a carbon tax, a cap on carbon emissions, or any other responsible action. That means President Barack Obama, who called for a bold response to climate change in his most recent inaugural address, will have to act without congressional support. His first-term doubling of fuel economy standards was an important step. Obama's plan to engage China in joint ventures on renewable energy is worth a try. But much more aggressive action is needed.

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The CO2 milestone indicates that dire scientific predictions are coming true. Doing nothing will be seen in hindsight as one of the worst examples of human greed and ignorance.