Trump, Climate Change And GOP Values

Climate change, conceptual illustration.
Climate change, conceptual illustration.

Professor, University of South Florida, Tampa

President-Elect Trump and many of his followers have doubts about the concept of human-induced climate change. However, regardless of party ideology or the causes of climate change, the next administration will to have to deal with its impacts. Three areas that are being and will be significantly impacted by climate change are the economy, human health, and national security⎯all core Republican values.

The Economy. In 2012, climate-related natural disasters, such as flooding, storms, drought, and wildfires cost the US more than $100 billion dollars. As of September 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recorded twelve weather and climate-related disasters whose cost each exceeded the one billion dollar mark. This does not include the impact of Hurricane Mathew in early October, which Goldman-Sachs calculates will cost the nation an estimated $10 billion dollars. Individual industries are starting to feel the pinch. Prior to 2008, Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Oregon produced 7-10 billion oyster larvae per year. In 2008, production fell dramatically, to one third or less of what it was. The company and nearby oyster farms that depended on Whiskey Creek's oyster larvae were devastated. The cause? Ocean water being pumped into the facility and used to raise oyster larvae had become too acidic (a result of the ocean's recent absorption of excess carbon dioxide). To remedy the situation, the company must now add more alkaline water at an annual cost of $1 million dollars. To combat rising sea level and the recent increase in so-called "sunny day flooding", Miami is investing more than $400 million dollars in a pumping system and related infrastructure. Coastal areas along the US eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico are facing escalating insurance costs. These growing expenses will hit individual homeowners and small businesses especially hard.

Human Health. The impacts of climate change on human health include heat-related deaths, hunger due to drought and agricultural failures or flooding, and the spread of certain diseases, including mosquito-borne Zika and Dengue fever. In a "top ten" list of disasters in the US ranked by fatalities, heat waves appear only recently (a 1980 heat wave in the US mid-west killed 1,700 people, many of them in Chicago). In 2010, a heat wave killed more than 50,000 people in Russia. As climate change continues and temperatures around the globe soar, an increase in heat-related deaths and more widespread disease can be expected. A more surprising connection between climate change and human health can be found in the ocean, in coral reefs. In 2016, aerial surveys found 93% of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia bleached. Stress due to prolonged high seawater temperatures is believed to be responsible for this mass bleaching event. Subsequent surveys have shown that the damage is unprecedented and wide swaths of the reef are now dead. Because many organisms on coral reefs use chemical compounds for defense, it is an environment ripe for drug discovery. Drugs developed from organisms living in coral reefs to combat cancer, pain, and inflammation are already on the market. If we lose coral reefs, we may lose the next cure or treatment for any number of human ailments.

National Security. In 2015, a Department of Defense report concluded that climate change is a security risk in part because it degrades living conditions, threatens human welfare, and inhibits the ability of governments to meet the basic needs of their populations. Across the world, flooding, drought, and lack of food or water are contributing to increased emigration and a growing refugee crisis. In low-lying Bangladesh, the loss of land and economic opportunity due to rising sea level and flooding are driving large numbers of people from their homes. Drought and agricultural losses have forced hundreds of thousands of people from Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa to move north into Europe, contributing to regional instability and a political crisis for the European Union. In small island nations threatened by sea level rise, leaders must look for a new homeland for their people and their culture. In the not-so-cold-anymore northern climes, such as Alaska, melting permafrost and ice is destroying a way of life, and also forcing people to move. Cumulatively, these mass movements contribute to social instability, threaten to destabilize governments, and increase the risk of conflicts among nations.

What can we do? Climate change is real and it's happening. Once the associated costs and inconveniences of a warming planet become truly catastrophic, it may be too late to reduce the impacts or prepare adequately. Investing in science, technology, and innovation will help us to adapt and reduce the negative impacts of climate change. Adequate funding must also be provided to programs, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to protect human health and welfare. International cooperation with other governments on issues such as air pollution that transcend borders will be crucial. Within the US, local communities, states, and regions must also plan for the impacts of climate change, including sea level rise, more intense storms, flooding, wildfires, and drought.

The authors of this article believe that the burning of fossil fuels directly or indirectly is responsible for most of the impacts discussed above, but we also recognize that not everyone shares this view. Is there common ground that would allow action to be taken now? One approach is to recognize the impacts without blame and to work to minimize harm. For instance, air pollution kills thousands of citizens every year. According to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering, much of this pollution comes from older coal-fired power plants. Closing the 15%-20% of the coal-fired plants that are the worst emitters and moving to newer technologies using coal gasification and carbon-capture, or switching to natural gas, would reduce carbon emissions, save thousands of lives every year, maintain employment in this sector of the economy, and coincidentally reduce CO2 emissions. Regardless of beliefs, steps can and must be taken now to reduce the harm and impacts of climate change on our economy, national security, and human welfare.

Dr. Ellen Prager is a marine scientist based in St. Petersburg, Florida. She is the author of popular earth and ocean science books, including "The Oceans" and "Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter".

Dr. Timothy H. Dixon is a Professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and author of the upcoming book "Curbing Catastrophe" to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2017.