Earlier this month, President Trump finally honored one of his many (often contradictory) campaign promises. He formally withdrew the United States from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. America is now one of only three countries in the world who are not party to this landmark agreement, joining Syria and Nicaragua in refusing to work collaboratively to combat the threat of global climate change.
Designed to slow and eventually reverse the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the Paris Agreement calls upon the 195 signatory nations to stabilize carbon emissions by 2030; while nearly 55 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide would still be released into the air every year, the near exponential increase in annual emissions would cease. The accord also calls for nations of the world to start reducing the overall amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 2050, offsetting anticipated emissions with compensatory sequestration and reforestation efforts. Should these ambitious goals be met, the estimated increase in the global average temperature would be limited to a manageable 1.5 – 2.0° Centigrade (2.7 – 3.6° Fahrenheit) above that of the pre-Industrial era.
Climate change is one of the most important yet, sadly, one of the most neglected problems that we face. According to the vast majority of climate scientists (over 97% of them, to be precise), mankind is irrevocably altering the environment as the result of industrial production and agricultural activity. One consequence is increasing global temperatures, but we can also expect to see changing rain and snowfall patterns, and more extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, floods and blizzards over the coming years.
The health-related impact of climate change is most directly observed during extreme weather events, such as increased mortality among the elderly and those who work outdoors during heat waves. The crippling heat that gripped the Southwestern US last week, for example, was responsible for dozens of confirmed and hundreds suspected deaths. That heat wave was relatively tame. By contrast, almost 700 people died of heat-related causes during the 1995 heat wave in Chicago, nearly 5,000 died during the 2003 heat wave in Paris, and over 10,000 died during the 2010 heat wave in Moscow.
In fact, extreme heat kills ten times as many Americans as tornados, hurricanes, and earthquakes combined. A study published just last week found that more than 30 percent of the world’s population is already exposed to potentially deadly heat for two or more weeks per year. Should even the most conservative climate change projections prove accurate, by 2050 over half of the world’s population will be exposed to extreme heat. Come this century’s end, three in four people will be at risk of dying from heat.
This is only the health-related impact of excessive heat. There are also the injuries and loss of life associated with other extreme weather events, like floods, landslides, tornados, and hurricanes. There is the insidious climate-related spread of infectious diseases, particularly insect-borne diseases like Lyme disease, West Nile Virus, and the newly emergent Zika. The impact of global climate change on human health in the US has been limited to date, but we can expect to see increasing morbidity and mortality as such diseases become more frequent, heat waves more persistent, and other extreme weather events more common.
We should also consider the financial impact of climate change. Last week’s heat wave disrupted air travel across the US as flights out of Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport – a key regional hub for American Airlines – were grounded; smaller regional planes cannot takeoff when temperatures exceed 118° Fahrenheit, a result of thinning air and reduced aerodynamic lift. The economic impact of that disruption was relatively minor, however, compared to the billions or trillions of dollars that will be lost to reduced agricultural production, lower worker productivity, and damage and lost property from floods, landslides, and other weather-related disasters as the Earth warms.
This is a pretty grim picture, even given current hopes that the Paris Climate Accord would finally lead to concrete action on global warming. The question that remains unanswered is whether or not the Trump Administration has doomed those hopes and condemned the world to an apocalyptic future of runaway climatic change.
It is still unclear whether or not President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement will have any effect on international efforts to combat global warming. It will certainly damage America’s international reputation. It will likely threaten the country’s competitiveness as the world transitions to a more efficient and environmentally-sustainable economic model. Thankfully, the federal government’s reluctance to abide by the voluntary goals of the Paris Agreement may not have any appreciable effect on efforts to reduce global carbon emissions.
The United States is currently the second largest producer of greenhouse gases globally, accounting for nearly 18% of annual emissions. Moreover, the emissions of other countries like China and India are partially driven by industrial production designed to serve the American market. Despite this, and despite Trump’s assertion that our country is hamstrung economically by environmental regulations like the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, our per capita contribution to global carbon emissions has begun to decline.
These reductions are the result not of the federal regulations that Trump has repeatedly railed against, but rather a consequence state- and local-level laws, structural changes as we move to an information-based economy, and increasing awareness among the general populace. Contrary to claims that environmentally-friendly regulations hamper economic growth, those cities and states that have passed some of the most progressive laws have actually experienced some of the greatest returns as a result of improved efficiency and reduced waste.
Is the current Administration’s plan to ignore current international consensus on climate change misguided? Definitely. Should we be dismayed that our elected leaders are sacrificing the long-term economic stability and health of our country (and the planet) for short-term financial gains? Absolutely. But hope for a better future for ourselves and our children is not lost, and each of us can contribute to the fight by making changes at home, being greener in the office, and reducing our carbon footprint when we travel for work and for pleasure. Since our elected politicians refuse to show leadership on this matter, it’s time that we concerned citizens take charge … at least until the 2018 midterm elections roll around.
A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Dr. Sean Philpott-Jones is Director of Research Ethics for the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in Schenectady, New York. He is also Acting Director of the Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership, and Project Director of its Advanced Certificate Program for Research Ethics in Central and Eastern Europe.
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