By Janice Cantieri – Nov. 8, 2016, Election Day.
“If you want to name things that could really bring down civilization, nuclear bombs are one, but I think CO2 has all the seeds of that,” said pioneering climate scientist Wallace Broecker of Columbia University. “You’re going to see enormous problems with that, I mean political problems, every kind of problem you can imagine. And it’s the kind of thing that could bring the world down, make a war. It’s enormous.”
For scientists, climate change—largely overlooked in the 2016 election battles —remains one of the most important issues at stake on Election Day.
The election’s outcome could impact how quickly and to what degree the U.S. reduces emissions of CO2, the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Constantly released in fossil fuel emissions, CO2 traps heat in the atmosphere and causes global warming. Strong world leaders, including the U.S. president, must take the issue seriously for any action on the issue to be effective, Broecker said in an interview at a climate conference earlier in fall.
“What we as citizens can do contributes, but it doesn’t get anywhere near solving the problem,” Broecker said. “It basically boils down to having a leader who wants to get it done and, you know, Trump is not going to want to even think about CO2.”
Swift action is needed to avoid some of the most severe consequences of global temperature rise, which include sea level rise, flooding, droughts and food shortages, Broecker said at the Comer Abrupt Climate Conference in Wisconsin this fall.
Republican nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax,” and tweeted that it was a “concept created by and for the Chinese.”
The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 6, 2012
UPDATE: This story was originally published before the presidential election results were in. In the weeks following the election, Donald Trump said he would keep an open mind about climate change. Trump and his daughter Ivanka met with former Vice President Al Gore on climate change. Gore is the author of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the 2006 book that warned about the dangers of human-forced climate change and the need to take immediate action to curb it.
While climate change has not been at the top of her political agenda, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton proposes building 500 million photovoltaic solar panels by 2020, a solar power increase of more than 700 percent from current levels. She plans on “making America the world’s clean energy superpower and creating millions of good-paying jobs, taking bold steps to slash carbon pollution at home and around the world,” according to her campaign website.
Clinton’s renewable energy platform would likely move forward on President Obama’s legacy. In his final term, Obama has taken a strong stance on reducing emissions and implementing renewable energy infrastructure with his Clean Power Plan.
The overwhelming majority of scientists—over 97 percent—have agreed on the evidence supporting human-induced climate change. Right now, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are above 400 parts per million (ppm), well above the 350 ppm recommended by many experts as a safe level to limit the warming caused by CO2. Gases trapped in ice cores show that carbon dioxide levels never rose above 300 ppm for approximately a million years prior to the Industrial Revolution.
Failure to act on the issue could lead to increased global conflict and violence, said Broecker, who is credited with coining the term “global warming” in 1975.
Last week, the landmark Paris Agreement set out by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change became international law. The agreement, signed by over 190 countries, established goals to reduce carbon emissions and limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), in an effort to avoid accelerating sea level rise, freshwater shortages, refugee crises and the spread of disease threatened by climate change.
On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to “cancel the Paris Climate Agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global warming programs,” according to a campaign speech in North Dakota.
In September, 376 scientists, including Broecker and 30 Nobel laureates, signed an open letter discussing Tuesday’s election, the United States’ stance on climate change and the importance of upholding the Paris Agreement:
“We are certain beyond a reasonable doubt…that the problem of human-caused climate change is real, serious, and immediate, and that this problem poses significant risks: to our ability to thrive and build a better future, to national security, to human health and food production, and to the interconnected web of living systems,” the letter read. “It is of great concern that the Republican nominee for President has advocated U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord.”
The letter did not endorse a presidential candidate, however.
Because of safeguards built into the Paris Agreement, the newly-elected president would have to wait three years before the U.S. could withdraw from the deal. But even if all countries followed through on commitments made in the Paris Agreement, warming is still likely to rise between 2.9 to 3.4 degrees Celsius (5.6 to 6.3 degrees F) by 2100 unless further action is taken, according to a recent report published by the U.N. Environmental Programme.
Critics argue that a significant shift from fossil fuel consumption would hurt the economy and jobs. But veteran climate scientist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University, alsoat the conference, said that moving towards clean energy would improve the economy, create new jobs and improve national security, he said.
Alley did not disclose who he was voting for but he is a strong proponent of reducing carbon emissions and transitioning to clean energy.
“If we take our knowledge [on energy and climate] and use it together for where we want to go and how we want to help people, using the knowledge improves the economy compared to pretending that this is a lie and ignoring it. And it improves the economy a good bit,” Alley said.
“Dealing with this wisely can give you more jobs” with new industries, he said. “It can give you a bigger economy, more money, greater national security, as well as a cleaner environment, and as well as helping future generations and people who are already suffering from the changes now in an ethical manner.”
“Fossil fuels accumulated over a few hundred million years. We are burning them over a few hundred years. We are burning them a million times faster than nature made them, they will run out. There is not a choice between fossil fuels and a sustainable energy system. We either burn and then we learn or we learn while we burn,” he said. “The good news piece in solving this is that you’re not destroying the economy, you’re saving the economy, and you’re improving national security. The generals want us to fix this.”
At top: Icebergs are breaking off of the Greenland glaciers. (Gary Comer/Comer Family Foundation)