This week, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will begin to release its first major assessment of human-caused global warming since 2013. The report will be released in a world that has dramatically changed over the past eight years. The average global temperature has increased from roughly 0.3°C higher in 2013 than the Earth’s average temperature during preindustrial times to nearly 1.3°C above that level today. As a result, weather has grown more severe, seas are measurably higher, and mountain glaciers and polar ice levels have shrunk sharply.
We’ve all seen the impacts. Last month, a heat wave triggered Greenland’s biggest melting event of the 2021 season. Danish researchers found that enough ice melted to cover all of Florida with two inches of water.
These same weather patterns were linked to record-breaking temperatures – and the resulting fires – in Western North America, Turkey, and Greece, as well as flooding seen in Europe, China, and India. California is experiencing the largest wildfires in recorded history.
Last week, that news was amplified by reports that the human-caused warming has led to an “almost complete loss of stability” in the system that circulates Atlantic Ocean currents.
This circulation is at the heart of Earth’s climate system, playing a critical role in redistributing heat and regulating weather patterns around the world. It transports warm water from the tropics to northern Europe and then sends colder water back south along the ocean floor.
As the current gains latitude it cools, adding density to waters already laden with salt. By the time it hits Greenland, it is dense enough to sink deep beneath the surface. It pushes other submerged water south toward Antarctica, where it mixes with other ocean currents as part of a global oceanic circulation system.
Climate change has disturbed the balance. Higher temperatures make ocean waters warmer and lighter. An influx of freshwater from melting ice sheets and glaciers dilutes North Atlantic’s saltiness, reducing its density. If these waters aren’t heavy enough to sink, the entire circulation will shut down.
While the researchers did not predict an imminent collapse, their findings suggest that the circulation is weakening, making it more susceptible to disruptions that might destabilize the system.
None of this, unfortunately, should come as a surprise. Scientists have predicted for decades that the burning of fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal – were heating up the planet and would lead to the devastating consequences that we are now experiencing. And some of those scientists worked for the oil companies themselves.
Instead of being a conscientious global citizen, the oil industry embarked on a decades-long campaign of deception that undermined environmental science. The industry went further, installing toadies throughout the political and civic worlds to parrot those lies. And it worked: Nothing of significance took place to avert the disasters that the world is now experiencing.
So, what should be done?
In the short-term the world must wean off its addiction to energy powered by fossil fuels. Also, nations must start building modern infrastructures that can limit the devastation from global warming.
In the U.S. Senate, last week U.S. Senator Van Hollen of Maryland, joined by Vermont Senator Sanders, Massachusetts Senators Markey and Warren, and others, advanced a proposal to make these climate polluters pay $500 billion toward the infrastructure costs the nation faces to address climate changes.
The climate changes resulting from the burning of fossil fuels cost – and will continue to cost – the nation dearly in damages in the form of more powerful storms, intense and frequent heat waves, powerful floods, and more pollution.
The Senators model their legislation on the nation’s toxic waste site clean-up (“Superfund”) law. The Superfund law uses a “polluter must pay” model. The aim is to hold fossil fuels companies responsible for costs tied to the climate crisis. Assessing polluters, whose decisions fueled the climate crisis, to help pay for the nation’s effort to adapt and mitigate the costs of climate change is the fairest and most just way to proceed.
Following the Senate’s announcement, New York Congressional Representative Bowman pledged to advance a matching bill in the House of Representatives.
As the Congress takes the next step in its budget reconciliation process, paying for the enormous infrastructure needs of the nation will move to center stage. Ensuring that those most responsible for the climate changes that are damaging our roads, bridges, mass transit, and drinking water systems, makes sense.
Make the climate polluters pay.