A world burning up and under water must finally act on climate change

By: - September 2, 2021 12:01 am

A flooded road outside Richmond. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Rose Hendricks and Mark Reynolds

Two recent Mercury articles send an incredibly clear message: the effects of climate change are here in Virginia right now, and they’re only going to intensify. First, Sarah Vogelsong’s article “Report says climate change will have ‘increasingly disruptive effect’ on coastal Va.” details the statewide repercussions of rising sea levels, more intense and frequent storms, and warmer and more variable local temperatures. Then, “Yes, Virginia, we are seeing more — and more intense — rainfall” zooms in on precipitation and the havoc it’s wreaking on our infrastructure across the state.

These changes in weather and consequences for our society come as no surprise to scientists who warned for decades that we are heading toward climate catastrophe. “These extremes are something we knew were coming,” climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe recently told the Washington Post. “The suffering that is here and now is because we have not heeded the warnings sufficiently.”

Those warnings go back to 1988 when then-NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen testified before Congress that ”we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and observed warming.” 

The “greenhouse effect” Dr. Hansen referred to is the additional carbon dioxide humans have emitted by burning coal, oil and gas. As more CO2 accumulates, more heat is trapped in the atmosphere. The summer of 2021 is providing an unwelcome glimpse of the terrifying future that awaits if the world fails to take decisive action to drastically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

In addition to the flash flood events we’ve grown accustomed to witnessing around Virginia, torrential rainfall has unleashed deadly and destructive floods in other parts of the country and world as well. In New York City, subway riders waded through waist-deep water when rain from Tropical Storm Elsa inundated train stations and highways. After seven inches of rain fell in and around Detroit in late June, highways flooded, stranding hundreds of vehicles. In Germany and Belgium, nearly 200 people died in freakish flooding that pushed rivers beyond their banks and through the streets of towns. 

The unprecedented rainfall causing these floods is partially attributable to warmer air that holds and eventually discharges more water. Scientists are also looking at changes in the jet stream, caused by global warming, that are making weather patterns linger longer, increasing the damage.

The cumulative effect of these weather-related disasters sends a clear message: Time is up to address climate change. As the Virginia Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine articulated, we can expect to see worsening effects of climate change Virginia for years to come: “Even under optimistic projections about our ability in coming years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, historically unprecedented temperature increases and heat waves are projected for Virginia by the end of the 21st century.”

Signs of hope emerged recently as the budget reconciliation process kicked off in Congress. The budget blueprint contains measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with the aim of cutting those emissions in half within 10 years. To reach that target, the budget reconciliation bill should include the essential tool most effective in reducing carbon pollution: A robust price on carbon, which can (and should) be designed in such a way that low- and middle-income Americans are protected from rising costs. Of course, carbon pricing must be accompanied by many other legislative measures, and will help accelerate all those measures.

Several bills have been introduced to set a strong price on carbon, and the policy idea has bipartisan appeal. These bills would protect American businesses with a carbon border adjustment mechanism on imports from nations that do not have an equivalent price on carbon. The budget reconciliation proposal includes such a carbon border tax. In order to comply with World Trade Organization rules, the U.S. would likely need a domestic carbon price to impose a levy at the border.

To ensure that the indispensable tool of carbon pricing is included in upcoming legislation, we ask that all members of the Virginia Congressional delegation support a price on carbon. 

We are encouraged that Congressman Gerry Connolly is already a sponsor of HR 2307, a carbon pricing bill. We are also encouraged that Sen. Mark Warner in August 2020 stated, “I do believe it’s time for us to put a price on carbon. There will need to be some ability in that structure to reimburse poorer Americans who potentially still have to drive fairly far. But I think there’s an acknowledgement that a price on carbon is probably the most effective way to grapple with climate change.”    

Recent extreme-weather disasters underscore that we are running out of time to address climate change. Congress needs to go big on solutions, or we will all suffer the future consequences.

Rose Hendricks is a volunteer co-leader of the Fairfax County chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.


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