Last week, an AP-GfK poll indicated that the portion of Americans who believe climate change is a serious problem is growing. An estimated 4 out of 5 Americans say that the world is warming and that it will present serious problems to the United States if nothing is done about it. Also, 57% of those polled said that the U.S. government should take steps to address the effects of climate change, up from 52% in 2009.
What was more striking was the shift in opinion from people who are skeptical of climate science. About 1 in 3 people polled are skeptical of climate scientists, and among them 61% believe the climate is changing, up from 47% in 2009.
And for good reason. Over the past several years, the world has seen an alarming number of serious climate events. Here’s a sample: Russian wildfires in 2010 (which killed thousands and caused global food prices to spike), record drought and wildfires in the U.S., floods in Pakistan, record low sea ice in the Arctic, and extreme storms hitting the east coast of the U.S.
To make matters worse, earlier this year, scientists estimated that the world is approaching a biological tipping point, in which rising greenhouse gas emissions and changes to ecosystems are threatening to irreversibly alter the climate. The consequences of such a change will lead to diminished productivity from agriculture, fisheries, and waterways. It will also mean increasing severity in extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and storms.
These events illustrate the rising threat to stability and prosperity around the globe. Hurricane Sandy recently offered a painful glimpse into this new world and makes a clear point that preparing for climate change is more urgent than public opinion would have it. Public opinion is a lagging indicator of action; proper national security means using foresight to prepare for and address threats before they become overwhelming. Because this debate has relied on public opinion, we may already be too late.
The question is what to do about it? With substantial changes in the climate already assured over the next several decades, we need to begin to take steps to adapt to the most damaging effects of a changing climate.
To that end, a group of Senators from areas ravaged by Sandy are offering legislation to provide the tools that state and local officials need to plan for extreme weather events. Cosponsored by Sens. John Kerry, Frank Lautenberg and Kirsten Gillibrand, the “Strengthening The Resiliency of Our Nation on the Ground (STRONG) Act,” would direct the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to chair a working group to assess all of the activities by various government agencies related to planning for extreme weather. Once gaps are identified, OSTP will implement a plan to improve support to state and local resiliency efforts.
This piece of legislation is merely one example of what is needed to adapt to climate change. Other steps that the U.S. needs to take include building infrastructure to withstand floods where it makes sense to do so, improve land-use planning and insurance schemes so that we make smart decisions on where and where not to build, and enhancing resiliency and redundancy in the electric power grid and other infrastructure, just to name a few.
Climate change presents a rising national security threat to the United States, and we must begin planning on how to adapt to this changing world.
To see more of ASP’s work on climate change, click here.