To Fight Climate Change, What Would George Washington Do?

On this Presidents Day, it's fitting to reflect on a November night more than 200 years ago, when Gen. George Washington and fellow patriot leader Thomas Paine rowed out onto New Jersey’s Millstone River with a contingent of soldiers to settle a scientific mystery; what was behind the rumors of the river catching fire?

As soldiers stirred the river bottom feverishly with poles, Washington and Paine held lighted parchments near the water to see if they would burn brighter. Immediately they flared up. Here’s how Paine described it, according to a story from Science Progress:

When the mud at the bottom was disturbed by the poles, the air bubbles rose fast, and I saw the fire take from General Washington’s light and descend from thence to the surface of the water….This was demonstrative evidence that what was called setting the river on fire was setting on fire the inflammable air that arose out of the mud.

What the nation’s forefathers witnessed—and proved—was that a flammable gas, likely methane, was bubbling up from the river bottom and catching fire. Of course no one knew about the heat-trapping properties of this powerful greenhouse gas, nor could anyone imagine what the world would be like centuries later as global industrialization has spewed billions of tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere, coating the earth in an invisible blanket and altering the lives of future generations in unfathomable ways.

Today, an overwhelming consensus of scientists say man-made carbon pollution is dangerously transforming life on the planet, melting the Arctic, fueling more ferocious fires, promoting more punishing droughts and devastating floods and wreaking havoc with our global weather systems and currents. This spring, the world’s most qualified climate scientists with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the federal government’s National Climate Assessment will issue their latest reports on the science surrounding our quickly-changing climate, adding to the growing scientific body of evidence that the world’s climate is becoming increasingly hazardous to our health due to the burning of fossil fuels and clear-cutting of forests.

Of course it doesn’t take a chorus of climate scientists to convince people that something isn’t right with what’s happening around them. Here in the U.S., people suffering through extreme cold and snow in the east only have to look north and west to see how crazy the world’s climate has become; parts of Alaska and California are experiencing record heat as the global jet stream has shifted in unusual ways, giving birth to the year’s most popular meteorological term, “polar vortex.” While the east is colder and wetter, the west is the opposite; heat, drought and fires in California and other western states could be of biblical proportions this year. It’s a frightening forecast scientists say will be increasingly common in a carbon-fueled world.

Meanwhile, countries around the world are experiencing dramatic extreme weather events that are equally disastrous. Just ask the people of Great Britain who are reeling from record storms and floods this winter; or sweltering Australians who are suffering through unprecedented deadly heat waves and fires; or warmed-over Olympic skiers who are worried that the slushy snows of Sochi are a sign of shrinking snowfalls and winter sports as the planet warms.  

Of course, mounds of scientific evidence documenting the impacts of climate change won’t solve our global dilemma. Climate change, after all, is largely a political problem, one that requires tough political solutions. Debates in Congress and on television and radio talk shows across the country are healthy, but they also show just how divided we’ve become even as the need for climate action becomes clearer. The fossil fuel industry continues to spend lavishly to curry political favors from politicians who sow doubt on the scientific process, a classic tobacco industry strategy.

We can expect record amounts of polluter money to pour into political coffers this election year, including millions for oil industry lobbying efforts to promote the proposed Canada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, a linchpin for expanding development of the dirtiest oil on the planet. Ultimately it will be up to President Obama to decide whether a pipeline project that threatens our groundwater, creates a smattering of permanent jobs and increases carbon pollution equal to 5.7 million cars a year is in our national interest.

Fortunately, the president is not waiting to act on the science or the law that requires protective action against the damaging effects of carbon pollution. Obama made that clear when he announced his Climate Action Plan last summer, and he made it a priority in his State of the Union address last month. President Obama also mentioned support for important fuel efficiency standards for heavy trucks to help further cut carbon emissions from the transportation sector.

But Obama's biggest carbon-cutting plan is expected this June, when the Environmental Protection Agency will announce new carbon pollution controls for existing power plants, the largest source of carbon pollution in the country. These new standards are similar to NRDC’s  innovative state-based plan to boost fuel efficiency programs and renewable energy sources. They will dramatically cut carbon emissions from pollution-belching power plants, boost clean energy jobs and put us on path to achieving global greenhouse gas reduction targets in the coming decade. (Click here to tell the Environmental Protection Agency that you support strong standards.)

So today, more than two centuries after George Washington discovered volatile swamp gas seeping from the Millstone River, the future of the world’s climate hinges on forward-thinking political leaders to take bold, innovative steps to solve our burgeoning climate crisis, already a threat to our health and economic well-being. It requires nothing short of a sweeping American revolution in clean energy and efficiency measures, using our technological know-how to grow an energy industry that creates jobs for an environmentally sustainable—not destructive—future.  

And that’s exactly what our founding fathers would have fought for.