Pearl Harbor and Climate Change

Today is the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the U.S. into World War II. Why can’t we make the same all-out effort to deal with climate change that we made 75 years ago to fight Japan and Germany?

Climate change, if we don’t take strong measures to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels within the next few decades, will cause far more harm to this country – and all the countries in the world – than the Japanese could have caused if we ignored their attack, or terrorists or ISIS could cause now. If we ignore climate change, it will affect the economy a few decades from now far more than any of the economic measures that were considered in the last election.

According to the IPCCC AR5 Synthesis Report, temperatures on Earth will increase as long as we continue burning significant amounts of fossil fuels. Once that happens, “surface temperatures will remain approximately constant at elevated levels for many centuries after a complete cessation of net anthropogenic CO2 emissions.” In other words, Earth will be stuck, perhaps for millennia, with the temperature increases we’ve caused, primarily by burning fossil fuels. This persistence is due to the extremely long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Right now we’re on the catastrophic path to 4 or 5 degrees celsius of average warming. According to the IPCCC report, even though we’ve started down the path of replacing coal with renewables for electricity generation, there has not yet been a substantial deviation in global emissions from the past trend. In spite of our efforts, emissions continue to increase every year. And the costs of fixing the problem will skyrocket if we don’t deal with it soon.

Pearl Harbor Day is a good time to reflect on the dangers we face as a nation and as part of the world. I hate to call for another “war” that isn’t really a war, like the war on terrorism or the war on drugs, but we need something like a war on climate change to deal with the most pressing challenge of our time.