Who cares about climate change?

On February 12, 2014, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times
State Representative Denise Provost is back from her climate change fact-finding odyssey.

State Representative Denise Provost is back from her climate change fact-finding odyssey.

By State Representative Denise Provost

Science first

First of all, what is climate change, does it even exist? Often linked with – or hidden behind – the expression “global warming,”  “climate change” refers to a set of measurable, related phenomena that greatly increases the likelihood of unusual and even violent weather. The main driver is generally accepted to be increasing amounts of certain gases, particularly carbon dioxide, in the earth’s atmosphere.

The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the earth’s atmosphere has risen from 290 parts per million (ppm) before the Industrial Revolution (around the time of the American Revolution), to 394 ppm in 2012 – a 41 percent increase. These increasing amounts of CO2 – along with methane and certain other gases – trap increasing amounts of the sun’s heat in our atmosphere, with a predictable overall effect. Here’s what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) says about the effects of these increasing levels of “greenhouse gases” in earth’s atmosphere:

“The global average temperature increased by more than 1.4°F over the last century. In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the decade from 2000 to 2010 was the warmest on record, and 2010 was tied with 2005 as the warmest year on record. Rising global temperatures have also been accompanied by other changes in weather and climate. Many places have experienced changes in rainfall resulting in more intense rain, as well as more frequent and severe heat waves. The planet’s oceans and glaciers have also experienced changes: oceans are warming and becoming more acidic, ice caps are melting, and sea levels are rising. All of these changes are evidence that our world is getting warmer.”

There’s widespread consensus on the science, based on worldwide data, from multiple sources. A substantial number of the governments in the world take the consensus science as a given; debate mostly focuses on the appropriate response. Looking at the governments most actively engaged in tackling climate change tells us who really cares about it.


Caring about climate change, combating climate change

A great number of governments in the world understand the science of climate change; many are experiencing, to some extent, its real-world effects. For one poignant example, look at the 2009 report of the New York City Panel on Climate Change and think about its implications in light of the subsequent damage inflicted there by Hurricane Sandy. Many governments, however, have been slow and cautious in their legislative reaction to climate change, and there has been little progress in the realm of international agreement.

Many individual governments, however, have taken leadership in slowing the rate of carbon emissions, which drive climate change. Massachusetts, for instance, in 2008 enacted the comprehensive Global Warming Solutions Act, with overwhelming and bipartisan support. Our bill followed on the heels of the groundbreaking 2008 Climate Change Act adopted by Great Britain months earlier.

Britain’s groundbreaking legislation requires that the nation’s carbon emissions be reduced by stated percentages below 1990 levels. First filed in 2005 by a member of Parliament from the Conservative Party, the Climate Change Act was adopted with wide support across political party lines. When it was brought to a vote in the House of Commons, only five members voted against the bill.


Why does Great Britain Care about climate change?

Great Britain’s 65 million people live in four countries, on two large islands in the North Atlantic. There are smaller islands, in the South Pacific, which are simply disappearing as sea levels rise.  While Britain is being buffeted by changing weather patterns, it at least has the expertise and economic and political will to do something about its predicament.

What is that predicament? In early January 2014, most of Great Britain was either under flood warning or flood alert, and significant parts of it were flooded. In some places, people were being evacuated by boat. In others, supplies were being brought in by boat to villages that had become islands. Exceptionally violent winter gales washed away parts of the coast of Wales and the southern coast of England. The Thames Barrier had to be closed for 11 successive tides (as of this Jan. 8) to keep London from flooding.

Faced with destructive changes in its weather patterns, and aware of the underlying science, Britain has gone beyond enacting its own strong law; it has been a climate-change policy driver for the European Union, with its 28 member states and combined population of over half a billion. It has participated in the ongoing meetings aimed at negotiating an international climate change agreement. Earlier this year, Britain’s government also brought state legislators from the USA to talk about climate change.


The global, the national and the local

This past January, I joined legislators from Maine, Michigan, Washington and Oregon for a week’s worth of meetings and briefings in Britain. We met with officials from Britain’s cabinet-level Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), to learn about Britain’s programs and policies, as well as with officials from the Climate Change and Energy Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the host agency of the trip. We met with officials from the cabinet-level department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and executives from businesses, both global and local, and from business organizations, including Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the nation’s largest organization representing businesses large and small.

Both the national government and the private business sector in Britain see the transition to a low-carbon economy as an engine of tremendous economic growth, as well as a change essential to maintaining the nation’s security and quality of life. This message was repeated time and again. Nor is it merely the top-down policy of the national government; it is also being embraced by local governments, organizations and industry through their own initiatives.

Our U.S. delegation traveled by train to Bristol, a port city with a population about the size of Boston. As it turned out, our journey took us through shockingly flooded parts of the county of Somerset. While not part of our planned agenda, the flooding provided us with some indelible visuals. Bristol was recently voted by the E.U. to be its next European Green Capitol, and it showcased the many ways that local government can save money and become more attractive to its residents and to business through a variety of “green” initiatives.

It’s worth noting that Britain’s climate-change laws are more than well-intentioned aspirations. It has an aggressive energy efficiency program that is creating savings on energy bills and is projected, by 2020, to have saved enough energy to equal the output of 22 power stations. It has the world’s sixth largest wind energy production sector (number one for offshore wind), which has created over 32,000 jobs in 150 supply-chain manufacturing companies. Britain has managed to cut its own carbon emissions by more than 25 percent over 1990 levels and generates about one third of its electricity from low-carbon sources.


Legislative responsibility: a call to action

Back in London, the U.S. delegation met with representatives from another sector of government – fellow legislators. Parliamentarians from both houses and across parties generously spent hours speaking with us about their efforts, domestically and internationally, to combat climate change. This group of parliamentarians included founders and members of an organization called Global Legislators Organization for a Balanced Environment, or GLOBE International.

One of GLOBE’s initiatives is to make an annual worldwide inventory of national and state-level climate change legislation. Even as international negotiations have stalled, this arena is one where real progress is taking place. It may not be making the news in the U.S., but governments all over the world are taking legislation action in the face of climate change.

Mexico, in 2012, enacted comprehensive climate-change legislation. Columbia has adopted a low-carbon development strategy (Why? The cool areas conducive to coffee production are moving further up their mountains, and farmers who can no longer grow coffee will plant coca.)

South Korea has adopted its Framework Act on Low Carbon Green Growth (Why? For every degree of increase in average temperature, rice yield drops by 5 percent). Although the national government of China has remained noncommittal about international climate-change agreements, it has put carbon-reduction goals in its latest Five-Year Plan, and some of its provinces are taking their own action on climate change.


Where do state legislators fit in?

It’s well known abroad that some U.S. states – Massachusetts notable among them – have much more advanced climate change laws than the U.S. as a nation. Nations concerned about climate change view this kind of state-level leadership as a global asset. Positive action by enough states in a nation can go far to counteract inaction or vacillation at the national level.

“After all, some U.S. states have larger populations and gross domestic products than many of the nations of the E.U.,” remarked the Right Honorable John Gummer, the Conservative peer who is President of GLOBE International. “It makes sense,” he said, to engage legislators from the U.S. states in international efforts to combat climate change. “After all, we represent the will of the people,” he concluded, speaking generally of all legislators elected by constituencies everywhere.

My own constituents, like most folks in Massachusetts, are interested in having a healthy economy – and the innovations required to adapt to climate change offer great economic benefits, especially for early adopters. My constituents would like to have their part of the world continue to be habitable -not underwater or rendered intolerable through extremes of temperature or storms. To do justice to my constituents, I’m going to continue taking action against climate change – locally, at the state level and internationally.

State Rep. Denise Provost, who has represented Somerville in the Legislature since 2006, is a member of the Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.


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