Refocusing the Debate in Congress on Climate Change

Nobody wants climate change to be real. It's scary. It's hard. We would all much rather it wasn't happening. But denial is a costly proposition. Just ask the insurance industry.

Last week, at the Senate's first hearing on the issue since President Obama rolled out his comprehensive plan to respond to climate change, insurance representatives voiced concern about the recent spike in severe weather. The surge in claims, they said, has forced billions of dollars in payouts. They urged federal agencies to consider climate risk when reviewing projects, and to offer tax credits for homeowners who prepare for climate disasters.

"The [insurance] industry is at great financial peril if it does not understand global and regional climate impacts, variability and developing scientific assessment of a changing climate," Franklin Nutter, president of the Reinsurance Association of America, explained.

Insurance industry execs don't have a dog in the fight about whether climate science is real. They aren't moved by convoluted politics. They care about real risks that have real impacts on their bottom line; and their testimony shows how climate change is already beginning to disrupt many facets of our economy. So if climate science doesn't move you -- dollars and cents (and a heaping helping of common sense) should.

Despite warnings from the insurance industry and others -- and despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, a handful of Senators at the hearing insisted on denying that climate change is happening, is caused by manmade pollution, and is a problem we have the power to address.

They can continue to ignore the science. But here's what we can't ignore: We're at risk. We've all witnessed the spike in extreme weather and disasters. We've watched the tragedy that unfolds when people with limited resources are put in harm's way. More importantly, as those who are recovering from recent tornadoes, fires, and floods know, ignorance can be a matter of life and death.

The problem is especially urgent for communities of color and low-income Americans. We saw it with Katrina and again with Sandy -- those with the fewest resources have a harder time preparing, surviving, and recovering from disasters.

As Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) has noted, "For communities of color, who have shouldered a disproportionate burden of the effects of climate change, it is essential that we tackle this problem together."

That's why it's important that as we work to slash carbon pollution, we also take steps to protect the folks who are most vulnerable.

Instead of debating whether climate change is real or not, we need our political officials to lead the charge in building resilience in the communities that are hit first and worst. We can start by mapping the risk. Climate change affects all of us, but for some -- like those living in flood zones or neighborhoods with limited shelter and transit -- the consequences are more immediate and devastating.

We need to work within these high-risk communities to develop resilience plans that enable them to survive and recover -- and they will need resources in order to implement these plans. Communities need investment in projects that will help them survive, like repairing stormwater infrastructure and building sea walls. And they can't afford to wait.

It's way too late in the game for conversations about whether climate change is happening. It's here. As President Obama said in June, "We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society." Those who continue to deny the problem are as out of touch as the folks who insisted for years that smoking cigarettes was perfectly healthy -- even in the face of indisputable evidence to the contrary.

The conversation we need to have -- now -- is how we can stop the pollution that's causing climate change -- and how we can act swiftly to protect those Americans who are on the front lines and in harm's way.