Climate change: challenge and opportunity

George Gresham | 9/1/2016, 11:48 a.m.
Heavy rainfall and historic flooding in Louisiana last month took the lives of 13 residents and damaged 60,000 homes.
George Gresham Contributed

Heavy rainfall and historic flooding in Louisiana last month took the lives of 13 residents and damaged 60,000 homes. The catastrophic flooding, the Red Cross reported, was the worst natural disaster to strike the nation since Superstorm Sandy four years ago.

The floods were our nation’s eighth in the past 15 months in which the amount of rainfall equaled or exceeded what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts should occur once every 500 years.

Climate scientists warn that extreme-weather events will become even more common as the world continues to warm. According to a National Academy of Sciences report published earlier this year, extreme flooding, for example, can be traced directly to human-induced global warming. Rising levels of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases have warmed the Earth, with dangerous far-reaching effects, including rising sea levels, extreme heat and increased fires, droughts, floods and storms.

And the pace of warming is accelerating. Last July was the hottest month on Earth in recorded history, topping the previous record holder, July 2015. In fact, July 2016 was the 15th straight month of record-breaking temperatures.

More than 99 percent of climate scientists recognize that we have a climate crisis and that human activity is causing it. We all contribute to the warming of the Earth and we are all affected. But, as usual, those least responsible bear the heaviest costs.

Nearly two-thirds of all industrial carbon dioxide and methane (another heat-trapping gas) released into the atmosphere since 1854 can be traced to just 90 companies. Chevron, ExxonMobil, Saudi Arabian Oil Co., British Petroleum, Gazprom, Shell and the National Iranian Oil Company have produced almost one-fifth (18.7 percent) of all industrial carbon released into the atmosphere during that period.

The world’s richest 500 million people are responsible for 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, whereas the 1 billion poorest are responsible for just 3 percent. But we don’t have to look beyond our own communities to see the disparities. Residents in low-income communities of color were the last to get back on their feet after Superstorm Sandy. And poor communities generally are hosts to the worst pollutants. For example, ground level ozone, worsened by global warming, has helped make communities such as the South Bronx asthma incubators.

And it is not only Pacific-island nations that are disappearing. Since 1955, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw people have lost 98 percent of their land in the Louisiana Bayou to the encroaching gulf waters. In January, the Department of Housing and Urban Development granted $48 million to relocate the tribe from the disappearing Isle de Jean Charles.

For decades ExxonMobil and the Koch family foundations have funded the creation of climate disinformation think tanks, all the while concealing their own scientific evidence that the Earth is warming. That warming has fueled wars, migration, disease and death.

But we believe another world is possible. Last December at the U.N. Climate Conference, COP 21, some 195 nations for the first time agreed to cooperate on measures to end our dependence on fossil fuels. But even the conference participants recognize that the agreement does not go far enough.

To avert the worst impacts of climate change, we must transition quickly to solar, wind and geothermal energy. The transition to sustainable forms of energy could also help us address growing economic and social inequality.

A greener and cleaner economy would help to repair our failing infrastructure, retrofit old buildings, and provide a just transition for workers who are negatively affected by the changes, while ensuring training and union jobs for communities of color.

These changes require our building political power from the bottom up. A prerequisite for realizing these goals is a decisive defeat of the Republican Party’s climate polices. In 2008, the GOP at least acknowledged the existence of climate change. Today, the party not only calls climate change a hoax, but also its platform calls for the dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency. By contrast, the Democratic Party platform calls for a WWII-scale mobilization to address the crisis. To make that a reality, however, requires our consistent pressure.

If we don’t act now, history will judge us harshly. Let’s be guided by the Native American proverb, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest health care union in the nation.