Which is a greater threat to our health and safety—gun violence or climate change? President Obama suggests that everyone concerned about the stranglehold the NRA has over Congress should make the support of “common sense gun reform” a litmus test. In West Virginia, this would give us few choices on election day.
The NRA is at the heart of most politicians’ fears of supporting even the mildest restrictions, such as expanded background checks. But they have gotten a lot of help from the conspiracy theory President Obama referred to in a recent town hall meeting that the federal government has a secret plan to register, then confiscate all private firearms in preparation for implementing a totalitarian regime.
Unfortunately, conspiracy theories and wholesale rejection of science that we used to be able to laugh off as ideas held by tiny slivers of the population are now cynically used by mainstream politicians to garner support from increasing numbers of misinformed, suspicious Americans. And the prime example of that is climate change, which I would suggest is a much more important litmus test for 2016.
Yes, guns in America kill and injure thousands, and reducing that number is an important goal, but failing to reduce the greenhouse gases (GHG) being added to the atmosphere every day has the potential of resulting in catastrophic impacts on a global scale. I should not have to list them: rising sea levels, increased droughts, disease, hyper-destructive weather events, extinctions, populations on the move, and more.
Most Republican politicians, and West Virginia politicians from both parties still either deny the planet is warming, deny that it is human caused, or claim that there is nothing we can do about it. They often say that China and India will continue building coal burning power plants that will offset any of our efforts.
The recent Paris Agreement belies this claim. Almost 200 nations, including China and India, agreed on a plan to implement measures to limit global temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius, considered a tipping point beyond which already serious effects become catastrophic.
No one is calling this agreement perfect. It is non-binding. Each country must set its own goals, decide how to achieve them, report back to the world on their progress every five years, and to the extent they are able, decrease their emissions goal over time.
As a world leader, historically the world’s largest overall emitter of GHG, and the largest emitter per capita, we have a unique responsibility to make and meet goals under the Paris Agreement. This will not be easy, but it is certainly possible.
Let’s face it—we are addicted to cheap fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas. They have literally fueled American prosperity. We see gas fall under $2.00/gallon and cheer. We love our low electricity bills that have been provided by cheap coal. Hydraulic fracturing has brought cheaper natural gas into our homes. But what do they really cost? What will we pay in increased flood damage and worsening storms?
As a nation, we were addicted to tobacco, and I remember buying cigarettes for $.30 a pack. What did it really cost America in lost time at work, doctor visits, heart disease, lung cancer and emphysema? Today cigarettes cost about $6.00 a pack, and many fewer people are willing to pay that price, which is saving lives.
If we increased the cost of fossil fuels by applying a fee for their production and importation, we would make them less desirable and set the stage for the development, growth, and acceptance of alternative energy sources. Citizens Climate Lobby (citizensclimatelobby.org) has a proposal to impose such a fee and return all the money collected to households, which would in most cases reimburse them for the increased costs of fuel during the transition to alternative sources.
Find out what the position of candidates for office is on climate change and carbon fee and dividend legislation, and support those who face the future with optimism by dealing realistically with the biggest challenge of our time.
Paul Epstein is a retired teacher, writer, and musician living in Charleston.