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Breaking Silence On Climate Change

August 30, 2014 | Posted by Mitt Jones
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SeaStar2.jpgOver the years my family has developed a tradition of starting each summer with a long weekend at the Oregon coast. Some of our fondest memories are of early mornings spent catching low tide at the nearby tide pools, marveling at the orange and purple starfish (or sea stars, as they are more correctly known).

This year we arrived at our favorite spot to find that many of the sea stars were dead or dying, undoubtedly from Sea Star Wasting Syndrome. My two young daughters, my wife, and I stared silently at sea stars dangling from rocks and at puddles of orange or purple goo, which in some cases were all that was left of these wondrous little creatures.

For me the experience transformed climate change from an uncomfortable topic to an immediate and personally relevant threat. I realized as I stared at what was left of the sea stars that many of the magical and wonderful things we humans love about the natural world are leaving us. Now. Today. Thirty years ago it may have made at least a little sense to talk about global warming as a distant, far-off thing, but today climate change is undeniably upon us.

Broad Impacts

We are at the front edge of what many scientists are now expecting to be the sixth great extinction event of our planet. Absolutely, the worst is yet to come. But the effects of climate change are already altering our world, from their likely role in the demise of Pacific Coast sea stars (possibly through rising water temperature and acidity) to the death of hundreds of millions of acres of trees in British Columbia and the Rocky Mountains.

Scientists believe all coral reefs will be dead or in danger by mid century (nearly 20 percent have died already), which is not only a great emotional loss but also has staggering environmental and economic implications. Some of the world’s great cities, including New Orleans and Miami, may well be at least partially under water by the end of the century. The litany of horrible and not-so-distant consequences of our dependence on burning fossil fuels goes on.

Breaking Silence

Home performance and weatherization companies have been largely quiet on the issue of climate change, both with customers and as an industry. When working with homeowners, this makes perfect sense. Though personally powerful, our sea-star moment hasn’t changed our belief that the job of home performance professionals is to make houses more comfortable, safe, and energy efficient—not to proselytize about global warming.

That doesn't mean home performance leaders should be talking about climate change at the policy level. Climate change should be a key consideration in any policy decision with environmental impacts, including how much public support is provided for energy efficiency programs.

Speaking Out

We’re fortunate in Oregon to have a strong commitment to energy efficiency and the environment, but even here there is no clear mandate to act on climate change. It’s important to let legislators and other leaders at the local, state, and federal levels know that we want serious action on climate change.

Businesses have begun to speak up. A group of more than 160 Oregon businesses (including some of the area’s most well known, such as Adidas and Nike) have signed the Oregon Business Climate Declaration to spur action on climate change. Ceres has led a broader, national effort with its Business Climate Declaration.

UPDATE: March 24, 2015

When I wrote this blog post last summer, it was really about a powerful, defining moment in my thinking about climate change—not about Sea Star Wasting Disease (SSWD). That said, witnessing the effects of SSWD certainly helped create that moment. Recently, some readers have complained that I don’t mention that a virus is now strongly suspected as the cause of SSWD.

Densovirus and SSWD

In the months following this blog post, scientists published a paper identifying a probable virus behind Sea Star Wasting Disease, a densovirus.  This should hardly be good news to those who deny that climate change exists or could possibly cause problems: The verdict is still very much out on why a densovirus is causing such widespread destruction of sea stars now, given that sea stars have been exposed to it at least for decades. Environmental factors could certainly have played a role.

As I understood when I wrote the blog, it’s possible that climate change has little or nothing to do with the Sea Star Wasting Disease. To me it doesn’t much matter. Whether or not climate change played a large role in the SSWD, the destruction we witnessed increased our understanding of the fragility of the natural world as we know it. Our personal sense of loss helped us understand that ignoring climate change and hoping for the best wasn’t really a great option. 

Altering the Discussion

My hope when I wrote the blog post was that it would encourage others to bring climate change into policy discussions about energy efficiency programs and funding. That’s still true today. Climate change won’t become part of the policy discussion as long as we are reluctant to bring it to the table. 

Resources

Want to learn more about the costs and risks of climate change—and the possible costs of not taking action? Here are a few great places to start.

Environmental Protection Agency

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers a wealth of information about climate change and how it is affecting various regions of the country.

National Climate Assessment

The National Climate Assessment is published by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, which was established the Presidential Initiative in 1989 and mandated by Congress in 1990.

Risky Business Project

The Risky Business Project focuses on quantifying and publicizing the economic risks from the impacts of a changing climate. Michael Bloomberg and former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson are key supports of the Project.

Inaction on Climate Change: The Cost To Taxpayers

This Ceres report lays out the estimated costs of climate change to taxpayers.

Climate Change 2014: Summary for Policymakers

This is one of many informative documents from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which “was established by the United Nations Environment Programmeand the World Meteorological Organizationin 1988 to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic impacts.”

I’m sure we’re missing some great resources on the topic. If you know of any, please share them using the Join the Discussion form below.

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