China-United States deal a sign of progress in combating climate change

Arnold Paul//Wikimedia Commons: Greenhouse gases, such as those emitted by coal plants, are a leading cause of climate change.

As we all sat around our Thanksgiving dinners last week, I know that many of us huddled together for extra warmth as cold weather swept across the nation. In the last month, the northern United States has been frozen, wind chilled and buried under up to seven feet of snow. It certainly seems as if Christmas came early, but forgot the cheer.

Even with these record low temperatures, 2014 is still set to be the hottest year on record for the entire world. That’s a sobering thought.

Yet don’t try to tell that to leading conservative lawmakers such as Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, who continues to claim that “man-made catastrophic global warming was the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

Soon, I am sure, lawmakers will start replacing scientists and disprove global warming because of these dropping temperatures. As Stephen Colbert dryly noted in a tweet, “Global warming isn’t real because I was cold today! Also great news: World hunger is over because I just ate.”

The problem is that, while Colbert is right, Inhofe gets to vote in the U.S. Senate, and as the likely incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, will be sure to do unimaginable damage to the cause of combatting climate change. Never mind that the science is clear, concluding that climate change is real, man-made and continuing to damage the world that we live in. No one can even consider that the same science that gave us refrigeration, immunization and instant communication could be correct about this.

While denial of science is growing rarer, the greatest hindrance to any policy response to climate change comes from those who oppose the United States taking action to reduce emissions on its own. Conservative activists, commentators and thinkers argue that any action that reduces American carbon emissions will reduce economic effectiveness compared to competitive trade partners such as China, and therefore cannot be considered without the participation of the rest of the world.

The problem is that the longer we wait, the more drastic the action has to be to correct the effects of climate change. With growing carbon emissions needing to be reduced to a greater extent over a shorter time frame, due to these delaying actions, harsher, and more expensive, cuts to these emissions must be made. Therefore, the longer the waiting takes, the greater the effect on the economy. This is why the confusion of conservative activists harms climate change so much — every year they delay, the cure becomes more and more painful, and consequently difficult for the public to accept. Therefore, the earlier that we can take action, the better it will be for the nation and for the world.

Moreover, many recent studies from multiple sources have found that actions to combat climate change through creating a price for carbon actually leads to direct benefits. Institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and New Climate Economy have concluded that actions to combat climate change actually benefit the countries that they are implemented in, despite the lack of participation of the rest of the world. Even if the rest of the world stays a climate change denier, the United States can still benefit by combatting climate change.

This is why, despite the complete failure of Congressional Republicans to even accept the reality of climate change, much less act on it, President Barack Obama has used executive action to continue the fight against climate change. Instead of acting unilaterally, the president joined with China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, to commit to reducing the carbon emissions of the nations. This represents a first step towards the goal of containing temperature growth to two degrees over historical averages. This level is that which is considered by scientists to avoid the catastrophic effects of climate change.

Typically, Republican leadership slammed any such progress. Yet the fundamentals of this agreement, bringing China and the United States together in international agreement and substantially reducing the carbon emissions of both nations over what they are predicted to be without action, are exceptionally strong. Since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, no binding agreements on acting against climate change have been agreed upon by the world. The 2009 Copenhagen conference ended without any agreement at all, after China walked away from the table.

Any agreement that brings China on board is a huge step forward. As a huge first step toward a global framework, the agreement with China moves the world toward containing catastrophic climate change, reducing our dependency on fossil fuels that often come from the most volatile regions of the world and creating a better legacy for future generations. Despite the outcry, not only is this the best action to morally take, but it also will lead to substantial benefits for the nation, despite what those who opposite it might say.

The steps taken by the president are part of a global movement toward combatting climate change, where every voice that is heard can make a difference. Hopefully, the voices of the 60 percent of Americans who believe that climate change is an issue worth addressing, and the vast majority of scientists, will outweigh those dinosaurs of the past, such as Inhofe and the new Republican congressional majority.

James Stancliffe is a contributing columnist. You can contact him at jstancliffe@luc.edu.

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