Scientists and environmentalists are not alone in their despair that the world no longer can prevent climate change. The U.S. State Department has (mostly) thrown in the towel, too. Now it’s all about preparing for the aftermath.
When State Department officials recently met with opinion journalists from around the country, climate change came up repeatedly. Diplomats whose areas of expertise included the Middle East, East Asia, foreign aid, India and more kept coming back to the consequences of a warmer planet. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are treating it as the serious issue that it is diplomatically because they can’t do much domestically.
In the basement of the State Department that day, we heard words like “adaptation” and “resilience.” Diplomats asked, “How do we deal with this?” not “How do we prevent it?”
Todd Stern, Special Envoy for Climate Change, once or twice mentioned efforts to reduce emissions and the need for international agreement, but they were not the focus of discussion. Real action is probably unattainable. Developing countries want to pin more expense on developed countries than the latter will tolerate, and an intractable disagreement on Capitol Hill between Democrats who mostly believe in science and Republicans who don’t ensures greenhouses gases will continue to build up in the atmosphere.
“There are plenty of questions still to be worked out and worked through by scientists with respect to how fast, how bad, how large the impacts, and so forth. But the fundamentals are clear and it is happening on the ground,” Stern said.
The moral was that climate change is real, and we’d best figure out how we will react to it.
“This is a quintessential global problem,” Stern explained. “This is unlike most other environmental problems that you can clean up locally.” Where an oil spill might affect the Gulf of Mexico, it is contained. Climate change affects everyone everywhere.
Nancy Lindborg, USAID Assistant Administrator or the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, painted a grim human picture. Increased natural disasters will strike. Even if the United States is far from an international leader on curbing emissions, it still can be a leader it implementing mitigation measures.
“We are putting an increased emphasis on building resilience,” Lindborg said. “We’re seeing that where you have chronic poverty, and often coupled with the ever-greater impacts of climate change, we need to get upstream of what is a cycle of disasters.”
Preparation ranges from developing and sharing climate-resistant seeds to better managing resources. Lindborg and her fellow diplomats know all too well that when resources become scarce, the potential for conflict skyrockets.
Nisha Biswal, assistant secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, talked about work the Army Corps of Engineers has done in Bangladesh helping prepare disaster response systems and construct cyclone shelters.
Climate change exacerbates other environmental problems. Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, cited water shortages as an example. With changing rainfall patterns on a global scale, droughts are becoming more common in places that can little withstand it. Meanwhile, rising sea levels threaten low-lying coastal communities.
She also noted the increasing acidification of seawater that is killing many organisms that form the foundation of the oceans’ ecosystem. The Seattle Times recently documented some of the destruction already underway.
Too many Americans refuse to accept the evidence before their eyes and reject the overwhelming scientific consensus that the world is on a path to global climate catastrophe. At least there are smart people in Washington working on the issue anyway. Republicans in Congress might be a roadblock to legislative action, but executive measures remains possible and essential as a bulwark against the worst outcomes.
That’s an important fact to remember as the 2016 presidential election approaches. If America elects a president who denies the problem even exists, efforts to prepare will cease.
But climate disaster will not.