What Will Get the U.S. to Act On Climate Change?

"Americans are relatively unconcerned about global climate change."

At least that's what a report on global attitudes released by the Pew Research Center last month is telling us. The Pew Research survey of 39 nations found that just 40% of Americans see climate change as a major threat to the U.S., compared to a median of 54% in the global survey. 

This statistic, however, needs to change very quickly in light of another more staggering report. According to a paper published in the journal Nature, "a release of methane in the Arctic could speed the melting of sea ice and climate change with a cost to the global economy of up to $60 trillion over coming decades." 

Using economic modelling to calculate the consequences of the release of a 50-gigatonne reservoir of methane from thawing permafrost under the East Siberian Sea, researchers at the University of Cambridge and Erasmus University in the Netherlands examined what would happen if there were a release of methane over a decade as global temperatures rise at their current pace.

Their findings were pretty grim. "The global impact of a warming Arctic is an economic time-bomb," said Gail Whiteman, an author of the report and professor of sustainability, management and climate change at the Rotterdam School of Management, part of Erasmus University.

"In the absence of climate-change mitigation measures, the model calculates that it would increase mean global climate impacts by $60 trillion," said Chris Hope, a reader in policy modelling at the Cambridge Judge Business School, part of the University of Cambridge.

Although the cost could be reduced to some $37 trillion if action is taken to lower emissions, "as much as 80% of the costs would likely be borne by developing countries experiencing more extreme weather, flooding, droughts, and poorer health as the Arctic melt affects the global climate," according to the paper. 

It could also bring forward the date at which the global mean temperature rise exceeds 2 degrees Celsius to 2035, if no action is taken to curb emissions. Scientists have warned that the rise in global average temperatures needs to stay below 2 degrees Celsius in this century to avoid devastating climate effects that include melting glaciers and severe crop failure. 

But is this evidence enough to push Washington toward action?

The goals President Barack Obama set out a month ago in his Climate Action Plan included far-reaching proposals to address climate change and a new directive to limit carbon emissions for new and existing power plants. 

"The question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science, of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements, has put all that to rest,” Obama said at Georgetown University. "So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late."

His proposal won't solve all the challenges of climate change, but it's a first step toward protecting this planet. 

Although President Obama issued a presidential directive to the Environmental Protection Agency to begin drafting new rules governing carbon emissions from power plants, the real question is whether bipartisan support can rise to meet his soaring rhetoric. Conventional wisdom dictates that Congress won't pass a plan comprehensive enough (if and when it enacts a plan at all) to deal with this politically touchy issue. And predictably, Obama's plan has already been met with swift criticism from the Republican Party. 

However, last week, a House Republican staffer won an essay contest writing, "Someone in the GOP needs to say it: Conservation is conservative; climate change is real; and conservatives need to lead on solutions because we have better answers than the other side."

Some Republicans, including Bob Inglis from South Carolina, Barry Goldwater Jr., former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and former House Rules Committee Chairman David Drier have publicly recognized the need for action on climate change. 

Whether the new fiscal angle to the climate change debate is likely to get conservatives on board with some favorable climate-change policies is yet to be seen.  Let's hope there will be a new, swift, and constructive approach to the climate debate from both sides of the spectrum to solve this issue sooner than later. 

Because let's face it, it's getting pretty darn hot outside.