President Barack Obama launched a long overdue national Climate Action Plan in his Georgetown University speech on June 26, but it did not fully come to grips with the climate emergency already upon us.
An emergency has two basic components: It presents a grave threat to life, liberty, property, or the environment, and the situation requires immediate action. Climate change is obviously already doing grave damage to the Earth, and it threatens to do even more harm, per numerous studies. Thus, it satisfies the first condition.
Because damage to the climate is essentially irreversible on time scales of interest to present generations, immediate action is necessary before further irrevocable harm is done. Thus, the second condition for an emergency is met.
Data from the World Health Organization indicates that in the past 35 years, more than 5 million people have already died from increases in disease and malnutrition brought on by climate change.
These climate casualties have occurred, even though the world has only warmed about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit since the dawn of industrialization. The future is far more menacing.
If we continue heating the world at the current escalating rate, billions of people will neither have enough water nor sufficient reliable, affordable food supplies, and tens of millions of environmental refugees will be on the move, hungry, sick, and desperate. This is a recipe for increased conflict and chaos in many parts of the world.
The warming to date is but a fraction of the heating that is already in store for us. Even if carbon pollution miraculously fell to zero tomorrow, the atmosphere will get another 1—2 degrees Fahrenheit hotter, just from excess heat already absorbed by the oceans due to human activities so far.
But rather than curtailing emissions as much as possible, we've done the opposite. Global heat-trapping gas emissions increased 58 percent between 1990 and 2012. We are now on track to increase global average temperatures 7 degrees to 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Some experts are projecting that 7 degrees could be reached by 2060-2080.
Such temperatures haven't been seen on this planet in 5 million years. And those average temperatures would be roughly doubled in the interiors of the continents.
In the overheated world only a few decades from now, up to 30 percent of the world would be in drought at any given time, up from 1 percent today. Moreover, an estimated 50 percent of land where crops now grow would become unsuitable for crops.
Climate change has already had an enormous impact. Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, and others collectively killed thousands, left millions homeless and caused damages approaching $200 billion. Last year was the hottest year on record. Much of the nation was stricken with severe, widespread persistent drought, comparable in cost to Sandy.
The President's Climate Action Plan overall deserves our enthusiastic support, but it is still an early palliative step on the path to stabilizing the climate. If successful, it would just bring U.S. emissions slightly below where they were in 1990, when we were the world's largest carbon polluter, and it proposes only $8 billion for "clean energy technology across all (federal) agencies."
Yet, the climate emergency today is even more threatening in fundamental ways to our long-term security than the terrorism and conventional military threats, on which we spend hundreds of billions a year, or the financial crisis of 2008, when the Federal Reserve committed $7.7 trillion to bail out troubled banks. The climate emergency -- too long neglected -- needs to become a top financial as well as political priority. Humanity's deadliest common enemy is rapid and uncontrolled global climate change.
John J. Berger, Ph.D. specializes in energy and environmental science and is the author and editor of 11 books including "Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science" (Northbrae Books, 2013) and the forthcoming "Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader's Guide to the Climate Crisis."