Climate Change: The Quiet Catastrophe

Written by

Dan Farber Dan Farber teaches environmental law and constitutional law University of California at Berkeley. He co-directs Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy, and Environment, which works with stakeholders to find pragmatic solutions to environmental problems. He is also the chair of the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley, which does interdisciplinary research and teaching about sustainability issues.

The worst natural disaster to strike the developed world in modern history came upon us within the past ten years. You may instantly think of Hurricane Katrina or of the most recent disaster in Japan. But measured in terms of loss of life, neither was as serious a disaster that quietly struck Europe in 2003, leaving behind tens of thousands of dead.

The summer of 2003 was the hottest in at least five hundred years. London had its first recorded temperatures over 100 °F in history. The prolonged heat was catastrophic. Estimates of the total number of deaths begin at thirty thousand and run as high as fifty thousand. In addition to its health impacts, the heat wave also impacted agriculture and caused numerous forest fires, destroying over 2500 square miles, an area about the size of Delaware.

The European heat wave was extreme compared to historical temperatures, but less abnormal compared to recent decades because of the long-term increase of very hot days in Europe. Scientists project a huge increase in the frequency of this kind of extreme event over the next four decades. As one author of a recent U.S. report said recently, “A hotter, moister atmosphere is an atmosphere primed to trigger disasters. . . . As the world gets hotter, the risk gets higher.”

Heat waves are only one of the risks. Sea level rise will endanger many coastal areas and flood wetlands that provide buffers against storm surges in places like New Orleans. Scientists also predict greater irregularity in rainfall, meaning more intense rainfalls that cause floods and also more intense droughts.

We have known for years that these risks are caused by the escalating levels of CO2 in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. The consensus among scientists is overwhelming, based on decades of study, massive amounts of climate data, and calculations on the world’s most powerful supercomputers.

Yet there is fierce political pressure from some quarters to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the problem.  Even politicians like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who have recognized the climate change problem for years, are now pretending to have forgotten what they once knew about the science.

Congress seems incapable of doing much of anything these days, whether the issue is the budget or climate change.  Fortunately, other government bodies are trying to fill the gap.  After a strong push from the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun using its existing authority to address climate change.

Economists at Resources for the Future, one of the most objective think tanks in Washington, project that these efforts will cause measurable improvements in emissions at an affordable price. In the meantime, state and local governments are taking action of their own. California recently adopted its own cap and trade scheme, which may serve as a model nationally. Elsewhere in the world, the European Union has been a leader in addressing the issue.

Ignoring a big problem and hoping it will go away is a natural human impulse. It’s the reason why so many people put off going to the doctor when they see the early warning signs of cancer. The trouble is that ignoring problems just gives them time to get worse. We can’t afford to take that path regarding climate change. Yes, the problem is huge. And yes, there are daunting challenges ahead – political, economic, and technological.  But many thousands of people around the world have already begun to apply their energy, intelligence, and dedication to addressing the problem.

It is too late to prevent climate change. As the European heat wave tragically demonstrated, climate change is already here. But what we can do is to limit the extent of climate change, lest our children and grandchildren look back at the European heat wave as the beginning of an unparalleled series of disasters.