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The annual United Nations climate change talks, which concluded last month in Warsaw, unfortunately found little common ground on carbon. The talks broke down over the world’s richest nations’ inability to agree with the poorest on how to address the financial costs of global climate change.
While disappointing, it’s not surprising. Developed countries like the United States and the nations of the European Union, which have wielded the largest carbon footprints over the past decades, are not as often the victims of climate-related disasters. In fact, the countries facing the most severe effects of climate change are often the poorest and most under-developed. They are forced to confront not only natural destruction but economic ruin.
Consider the Philippines, now recovering from Super Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated the country last month. The rate of sea-level rise in the Philippine Sea is one of the fastest in the world — nearly 12 millimeters per year. Yet the Philippines contributes less than 1 percent of the total CO2 emitted in the world annually. This demonstrates the stunning inequality of climate change.
Haiyan’s Category 5 storm conditions lasted 48 hours, with sustained winds of 195 miles per hour and gusts in excess of 220 miles per hour. Few buildings anywhere can withstand that kind of force. The typhoon is estimated to have cost the Philippine economy $14 billion; to say nothing of the tragic human cost, now estimated to be at least 5,000 lives.
Something must to be done to lessen the destructive impact of climate change.
As the planet warms and the international community slows in their response to climate change, these “super typhoons” will only become more common and more severe. Scientists believe that storms like Haiyan will come to represent the norm for typhoons and hurricanes.
If we hope to make any headway meeting our goals for mitigating the effects of climate change, we must act now. The urgency was reinforced by last month’s World Energy Outlook report from the International Energy Agency, which predicted that CO2 emissions will continue to rise by a total of 20 percent by 2035. We will exceed the international target of a 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase by more than 1.5 degrees, the agency reported.
This is unacceptable. We are already facing the real effects of climate change with rising sea levels, which make any storm’s destruction greater with increased water surge and erosion.
Going forward, the United States should look to the Montreal Protocol — one of the most successful international treaties dealing with a planet-wide environmental issue — as a model for tackling CO2 emissions that lead to global warming. The Montreal Protocol successfully limited the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere and has largely stopped the hole in the ozone layer from growing larger.
Carbon dioxide and CFCs do not adhere to international boundaries once they enter the atmosphere. This is why we need innovative technologies to begin making strategic climate choices.
This is easier than many may think.
In fact, Washington can do something now to help cool the earth. Representative Mike Honda (a co-author of this piece), has co-sponsored several major bills regarding climate change. One would end federal tax cuts for the fossil fuel industry, another would fund students who develop, operate, and maintain clean-energy infrastructure. We have the talent and ingenuity to find ways to use technology to move toward a greener future, and these bills are a start.
As we help the Philippines recover from Super Typhoon Haiyan, we must remember that its impact was worsened by climate change. Those effects will only become greater and more widespread unless we act now, before another abnormal weather catastrophe wreaks incalculable damage.
Representative Mike Honda (D-Calif.) represents Silicon Valley and is a member of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. Michael Shank is the director of foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
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