Every four years, presidential candidates tell the American people that this election is a turning point for the country. This year they might actually be right. To be sure, there are always differences between candidates. On a range of issues, from health care to tax reform, voters face a real choice about two different approaches to governing.
But the most profound turning point in this election may be the fact that the neither candidate is talking about one of the most critical issues of our time. I refer to the silence around climate change.
For the first time in 24 years, the words "climate," "warming" or "greenhouse effect" were not used once in the presidential debate cycle. Meanwhile, "oil" and "natural gas" were mentioned 56 times. To put that in context, the U.S. just experienced the warmest eight months on record, when 60 percent of the nation experienced moderate-to-exceptional drought conditions, 44,000 wildfires burned 7.7 million acres, and U.S. corn production reached its lowest yield in 17 years. In 2011, the 14 most severe weather events in the country cost the U.S. close to $140 billion. And now comes Hurricane Sandy, which is on track to be the largest storm ever to hit the East Coast, with damage estimated in the tens of billions.
The nation is haltingly moving from one disaster to the next while the candidates bicker about who can drill for more oil and gas. To ignore the problem of greenhouse gas emissions while millions of Americans are suffering as a result is either extreme denial or the peak of negligence.
Let's be clear about one thing: Averting the worst consequences of global climate change is not about protecting the planet. It is about protecting us. As the extreme weather events of the last decade have shown us time and again, the planet is quite capable of protecting itself. Eons ago, Earth existed and even prospered under conditions that would be uninhabitable to mankind and most other life today. The heat waves, flooding, wildfires and gale force winds that we now experience with increasing frequency and intensity are all a part of the Earth's adaptive capacity to adjust to a changing climate.
Pumping more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere does not threaten the planet — it has been a lot hotter than this in its 4.5 billion years — but it surely makes the planet more threatening to us. Put another way, we are turning the planet into a place where we, and much of life as we know it, cannot survive.
Don't believe me? Ask the Pacific Islanders of low-lying nations like Papua New Guinea, who are now climate refugees after permanently evacuating their homes in the wake of sea-level rise. Ask the owners of the 275,000 homes that were destroyed during Hurricane Katrina, or the 600,000 pets that were killed or left without a home from that storm.
It is going to be some time before we know the full costs of Hurricane Sandy. What we know for sure, however, is that until we open up a dialogue about climate change in this country, based on the premise that the 99 percent of climatologists who say that climate change is happening and that human beings are to blame are correct, we do not stand a chance. When our leaders focus on an "all of the above energy strategy" and "clean coal and natural gas," that sends the wrong signal. That says that we are not ready to think about the sweeping changes needed to stem the tide of these destructive weather events from which we seem to be perpetually recovering.
We know what has to be done. Clean, renewable energy that can produce electricity while emitting zero carbon dioxide is available today. Energy-efficient appliances that can do the same work as their less-efficient counterparts with less energy are available now. President Barack Obama finalized new fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks so that by 2025 the U.S. auto fleet will have to get about 54.5 miles per gallon. This will save Americans roughly 3 million barrels of oil per day and $140 billion per year. That was a good step, but it is not by itself enough.
The U.S. has to break its silence on climate change; accept that our current energy-intense lifestyles are responsible for the increasingly violent weather patterns; and tax or otherwise limit the fossil fuels that are emitting climate-altering greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The planet does not need to be saved. We do.