Climate change remained the threat-that-must-not-be-named in the final presidential debate. Even the center-right Politico mocked the candidates for ignoring “a global climate crisis that could result in unprecedented sea-level rise, drought and food shortages.”
So, I’m launching a new occasional feature — “quasi-climate quotes” — words an opinion maker says on some subject that far better apply to climate change.
At the debate, Romney explained why he thinks we need to increase military spending:
And our military — we’ve got to strengthen our military long- term. We don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. We — we make decisions today in a military that — that will confront challenges we can’t imagine.
In the 2000 debates there was no mention of terrorism, for instance. And a year later, 9/11 happened. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty. And that means a strong military.
This quote makes little sense as stated, since U.S. military spending “is bigger than that of the next 17 countries combined,” as The Economist noted last year — a point Obama alluded to in the debate himself.
But if one were to apply it to the dangers posed by climate change and to spending on clean energy, then it would require a complete reversal of our current do-little climate policy.
The key point is that there is uncertainty in every major challenge we face. Arguably, reducing risk and avoiding worst-case scenarios are the major drivers of much national spending, from the military to health care. I’ll have more to say on that in a later post.
Uncertainty as it applies to the climate threat has been overstated by both scientists and anti-scientists. As demonstrated in the “Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts” — an analysis of more than 60 recent scientific studies along with numerous review pieces that each cover dozens of studies — we have an unusually high degree of certainty around future climate impacts if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path.
The main “uncertainty” we face on our current emissions path is whether climate change will be the worst catastrophe ever to befall humanity (at a warming of, say 5°F to 7°F) or whether it will mean multiple catastrophes (from warming >7°F) that leave Earth with a carrying capacity far below current population levels. Climate change, much more than military threats, will likely force us to “confront challenges we can’t imagine” — fearsome “unknown unknowns” or unexpected negative synergies such as the bark beetle devastation that wasn’t foreseen even a dozen years ago.
Warming beyond 7F is “incompatible with organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems & has a high probability of not being stable (i.e. 4°C [7F] would be an interim temperature on the way to a much higher equilibrium level,” as climate expert Kevin Anderson explains here. Tragically, that appears to be the likely outcome of business as usual.
And that means moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News asked the quintessential quasi-climate question at the end:
What do you believe is the greatest future threat to the national security of this country?
Sadly the President whiffed on this, continuing his indefensible climate silence throughout these debates. And it isn’t like Obama spent most of his response answering the question. As Politico noted, “the moderators’ questions certainly didn’t stop the candidates from diverting the conversation to their talking points of choice.”
In this case, Obama quickly pivoted to a long digression on education. Yes, those focus-grouped-to-death suburban moms that both candidates are fighting for just love to hear about investments in education — but suburban moms and indeed the majority of independents, Democrats, and moderate Republicans support climate action and clean energy as poll after poll after poll shows.
Someday a Churchill will emerge who won’t duck the issue, who understands that discussing climate change “may actually enhance turnout as well as attract voters over to their side.” Let’s just hope he or she emerges in 2016, since time is the one resource we are running out of the fastest.