Connecting the Dots of Climate Change

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Published on July 21st, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

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Here in Washington, where I work on environmental policy for The Nature Conservancy, politics often passes for actual information about the outside world.

Blogs, e-newsletters, and print dailies present a continuing stream of commentary on political alignment and conflict over issues. The energy and climate change legislation now being taken up by the U.S. Senate is rich territory for exactly this sort of thing, particularly because the outcome is uncertain.

But while the politics are admittedly important, it is easy for people here in D.C. to lose sight of the real-world objectives and the real-world context for lawmaking.

Not so easy, however, for those of us at the Conservancy — because we are so firmly attached to the outside world by our continuing connections with colleagues who live, work and travel in the real places where we do conservation. This connection was brought home to me this last week by two visits from colleagues:

  • Bill Ginn, our chief conservation officer, just returned from visiting our program in Mongolia where he reported learning that 850 rivers and 1,100 lakes have dried up in a longstanding drought and that temperatures have increased 2 degrees centigrade in the last 10 years. Combined with increases in grazing intensity, the drought threatens to turn man of Mongolia’s productive grasslands into desert — a threat to traditional herders and native wildlife.
  • And I met with Patrick McCarthy from our Africa program, who on his recent trip to the Zambezi River basin saw evidence of severe flooding caused by the kind of unprecedented local rainfall events that we are learning are characteristic of a changing climate. Here, too, the impacts on human communities were devastating. The likely reaction — more dam building and levee construction — could doom the wetlands so important to the Zambezi’s native species.

Why are these fragments of the larger reality of climate change so important to the policy debate about climate change legislation in Washington? Because much of that debate has been devolved to questions of cost.

The cost of reducing carbon emissions in the near term is played against what are characterized as uncertain future risks. Temperatures inside the Washington Beltway have been quite comfortable this summer, so the question is now being asked: “What are we sacrificing for?”

The on-the-ground experience backed by the overwhelming science, however, is that climate change is real, happening now, and represents far more severe risks to global stability and security and to our lives here in the United States than are being acknowledged in the ongoing debate on the climate change bill.

After the 9/11 tragedy, much was made about the failure of security agencies to connect the dots that, had they been interpreted properly, might have averted the terrorist bombings. At the Conservancy, our staff and scientists on the ground across the country and around the world are seeing lots of climate change dots.

We are connecting them, as are the world’s best scientists. The picture that has emerged is one of a far reaching and, likely, irreversible human and ecological disaster unless we take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So it is critically important for the Conservancy to continue to gather information from the field, for our scientists to interpret that information in the context of climate science and for us to express our findings to the folks engaged in the political process here in Washington.

And, finally, there is also a great deal of evidence that acting in time based on that evidence is not so much a cost as an investment in the future. As has been said by the members of the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (an alliance of industrial and environmental groups), conversion to a low-carbon economy can create a whole new range of industries and relieve our dependence on foreign oil (a true cost).

Connecting the dots of climate change should not frighten us, but rather galvanize positive action that is good for both nature and people.

(Image: Children of herders play a game of “stones” in the Turag Valley. The circle marked by stones represents a œger, a traditional tent house used by nomadic herders. Credit: Lkhagva Ariuntsetseg.)

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