For those watching and waiting for President Obama to take action on climate change, last night’s State of the Union address may have been an encouraging start. “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” the president said. “I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”
The reaction from some climate scientists who have been studying the issue for decades was overwhelmingly positive. “He made a really good point, that climate change is already affecting our lives today,” Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, tells StateImpact Texas. “[By] changing the risks of certain types of severe weather, like heat waves and floods, making storms stronger and sea level rise. So he brought the issue home to where we live, right now, today.”
While Hayhoe cautions that there’s “no one magic silver bullet” to address greenhouse gas emissions and man made climate change, she was encouraged by Obama’s calls for what she labels “sensible transitions:” increased renewable power, natural gas and a “race to the top” for energy efficiency. “The U.S. is one of the most wasteful countries in the world in terms of how we spend our energy,” she says. “It just makes sense to conserve what we’re already using.”
But she and other climate scientists add that aside from local, state and federal government action, there’s plenty individuals can do to turn the tide.
“Individuals control about 40 percent of the U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gasses,” Hayhoe says. She points out that there are many individual remedies: conserving energy, switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, even adjusting the thermostat a couple of degrees cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer will result lower carbon emissions from power plants, the leading source of greenhouse gases, and a lower electricity bill. “There’s a lot of ways we can restructure our habits,” Hayhoe says.
“I think it makes sense to break this problem into pieces, into things that are fairly easy to do that you might like to do anyway,” Dr. Kerry Emanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, told us recently. “I mean, who wants to pay a lot of money for gasoline at the pump? A lot of people are buying high-efficiency vehicles maybe not so much because they’re concerned about climate change, but they just don’t want to pay as much for gasoline.”
Using less gas in your new car will be easier, as new fuel efficiency standards passed by the president last year will nearly double fuel efficiency of new cars over the next fifteen years, setting a base level of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The president aslo called for an ‘Energy Security Trust,’ which will use oil and gas revenues from drilling on federal lands and offshore to fund research and development of electric vehicles, as well as cars that can run on biofuels and natural gas.
But the most important step for individuals to take, Emanuel believes, is to recognize that we have a problem. “To decide that, yeah, after all, an advance civilization should take an interest in its own future, and its children and grandchildren, and not just live for the here and now,” he said. “We fought world wars, at a terrible cost, because were concerned about the future of our civilization. It takes a certain cultural courage to do that.”
It would appear that as impacts of climate change become more noticeable, in forms such as long dry spells and stronger storms, affected communities are poised to accept that. A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling after last night’s speech for the Natural Resources Defense Council found that 65 percent of Americans think climate change is a “serious or very serious problem,” and 60 percent support “the president using his authority to reduce dangerous carbon pollution.” A different poll by the University of Texas at Austin last fall saw a notable increase the number of people who believe climate change is occurring, with the most growth in southern states.
But a lingering question: How much time is left to act on climate change before it’s too late?
“A lot of people talk about limiting climate change to a global temperature increase of about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit,” Hayhoe says, and that’s backed up by studies that show the further past that threshold the world goes, the more severe the climate impacts. “But the reality is, there is no magic threshold,” she says. “Just like there’s no magic number of cigarettes you can smoke before you develop lung cancer, there’s no magic number of carbon emissions that we can produce before we see dangerous impacts.”
“And some people are already experiencing dangerous impacts today,” Hayhoe adds.