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September-October 2010
Vol. 35, No. 5

Climate change: Where do we go from here?

By early August U.S. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pulled both climate and energy legislation off the Senate agenda knowing that he could not find the filibuster-proof 60 votes to pass this critically important legislation. It seems that climate concerns are taking a back seat to politics – but are policy makers playing Russian roulette with Earth’s future? 

In their bids for re-election this fall, congressional members in the Democratic Party will argue that Republicans obstructed the path to passing climate legislation. And Republicans will argue to cash-strapped citizens that they saved them from yet another tax (on energy). But to a growing population honestly concerned about the constant disregard for Earth’s ecological limits, dropping the climate bill now means putting a nationally-embraced effort to combat climate change on hold for possibly several years. What’s particularly troubling is the nearsightedness of this political game. In reality, the looming threats of climate change touch every aspect of life.

In July, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) released a policy brief entitled Global Warming Heats up Global Conflict outlining the many national security concerns related to a warming planet. The brief begins with the fact that the U.S. military accounts for 80 percent of the U.S. government’s fuel consumption. Given U.S. energy dependence, if the military does nothing to “green” its own operations, it will continually find itself in a complicated cycle of protecting fuel interests by engaging in international relationships that ultimately undermine U.S. security. 

According to the FCNL brief, global warming creates situations where people are left with no choice but to migrate. For agricultural communities especially, changing temperatures and weather patterns destroy livelihoods. Throughout the world many conflicts are being caused or exacerbated by competition for limited natural resources like water, minerals and good soil for growing food and for grazing animals.

When looking at the flooding in Pakistan, the Russian heat wave, and the mass of ice the size of Manhattan drifting away from Greenland, scientists are reluctant to point to any one of these events and say that they are a direct result of climate change. But scientists do see these events as part of a pattern consistent with climate theory: Heat trapping greenhouse gases, emitted since the industrial revolution, are warming up the planet. The theory holds that a world warming up due to these gases will feature heavier summer rainstorms, bigger winter snowstorms, more intense droughts and more record-breaking heat waves. Statistics kept by scientists and governments support the climate theory.

Earlier this year when snow was piling up on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, some Congressional climate change skeptics argued that the ice and snow proved that the planet is not undergoing “global warming.” But scientist Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado told the New York Times that “[g]lobal warming, ironically, can actually increase the amount of snow you get…But it also means the snow season is shorter.”

By the end of July in Washington, D.C., residents had survived 43 days of temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Clearly the inhabitants of Washington, D.C. will not be the first to suffer the worst effects of climate change, but decision makers in Washington do hold the moral responsibility to mitigate the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions to both protect its citizens and to prevent future climate disasters on a global scale. And the first step is to recognize it for what it is, and the peril that doing nothing can bring about.

It was hoped that by December 2010, the administration would have been able to take congressionally approved climate plan to the 16th Conference of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change in Cancún, Mexico. There it is hoped that world leaders will come up with an international climate agreement to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Without U.S. climate legislation, the administration can still negotiate a climate treaty but only if it maintains the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act; doing this is no easy matter as there have been various attempts to strip this power within the past year (see July-August 2010 NewsNotes ).

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