A houseboat rests in a cove at Lake Powell, July 30, near Page, Ariz. This summer, lake and river water levels hit a historic low amid a climate change-fueled megadrought engulfing the U.S. West. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

A houseboat rests in a cove at Lake Powell, July 30, near Page, Ariz. This summer, lake and river water levels hit a historic low amid a climate change-fueled megadrought engulfing the U.S. West. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Editorial: Summer of extremes calls for climate change action

The significant investments now considered by Congress are our best chance to limit climate change.

By The Herald Editorial Board

If weather were capable of a political agenda, its messaging during the past summer would not be mistaken for subtle hints.

Our summer of extremes started memorably for those of us in the Pacific Northwest with a late-June to early-July heat wave that set records for high temperatures of more than 100 degrees throughout Western Washington; heat blamed for at least 100 deaths in the state, and at least eight deaths in Snohomish County.

Wildfires in the West this summer have burned more than 580,000 acres in Washington state and more than 1.2 million acres in California, even killing about a tenth of that state’s usually fire-hardy giant sequoias.

Hurricane Ida cut nearly 1 million people from electricity and drinking water in Louisiana and Mississippi, before its remnants moved north to cause deadly flash floods in Tennessee and flooding in New York and New Jersey that killed scores of people.

All of that is on top of a slower roll of drought, retreat of mountain glaciers, falling levels of rivers, lakes and reservoirs and changes in the ranges and survival of birds, animals and marine life, not to mention the effects of air and water pollution on our health and well-being.

Weather, of course, does not have a political agenda; just cause and effect.

With the building release of greenhouse gases, especially during the last 70 years, the average temperature of the Earth has risen 2 degrees Celsius and has triggered changes in climate, including heat waves and droughts in some regions, heavier rains elsewhere, unseasonable cold snaps and more frequent and more extreme weather events.

At our current pace of greenhouse gas emissions — in particular carbon dioxide and methane — the world is expected to warm between an additional 2.5 degrees and 4 degrees Celsius before the end of this century, a level of warming that promises even graver consequences, deaths and trillions of dollars in losses. Just to maintain current conditions, the Earth’s nations, according to the most recent United Nation’s climate change report, will have to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And keeping to that mark would require a net-zero reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Limiting greenhouse gas emissions will require significant changes to our economies and daily lives and investments to build resilience into our infrastructure and switch energy production and use to sustainable, clean sources. Those investments won’t be cheap, but they are a better bargain than the losses we face if we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

One study from 2020 estimated that limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius would require a median global investment of $16 trillion; while limiting warming to 1.5 degrees would require a median global investment of $30 trillion. Compare that, however, to the expected losses resulting from our current path. A 2019 Moody’s Analytics report estimates that a 2-degree Celsius increase would cost the world about $69 trillion by 2100, with heavier losses for each fraction of a degree above that.

It is those potential financial losses — and other incalculable losses to our quality of life and natural world — that should be weighed against the investments now sought by the Biden administration and proposed in Congress, including a $1 trillion infrastructure package and a companion $3.5 trillion package, significant portions of both that are intended to make our infrastructure more resilient and drive the transition to clean, sustainable sources of energy.

Those investments seek — to use President Biden’s term — to “build back better” our transportation, electrical grid and broadband internet infrastructure; transition the auto industry to electric vehicles and build a nationwide charging system; provide zero-emissions transit systems; move to clean electrical energy generation; build energy-efficient homes and buildings and drive research and development in the nation’s range of industries.

Snohomish County will see examples of those investments if Congress moves each along. Last week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on which Rep. Rick Larsen, D-2nd District, serves, passed that committee’s portion of the Build Back Better Act, which would invest $60 billion to create a cleaner transportation network, fight climate change and create family-wage jobs.

“This aggressive and progressive bill makes necessary investments in affordable housing, transit, high speed rail, clean aviation, shipyards and other critical infrastructure for Northwest Washington to grow and thrive,” Larsen said in a release following the committee’s vote.

Those investments are in addition to the earlier INVEST in America Act, already passed by the House, that outlined $715 billion over the next five years for road and waterway transportation, including $19.44 million in Larsen’s district, including $1.68 million for the U.S. 2 trestle project and $3.9 million for design and construction for Arlington’s 169th Street connection project.

With slim Democratic majorities in Congress, the investments sought almost exclusively by Democrats are nowhere near certain, even within its own party in the Senate. Those investments that are tied to solutions to climate change should be given the highest priority if compromise begins to reduce either package’s dollar figure.

While this is about affecting change in the United States, the country also must use its example to lead the rest of the world in confronting the climate crisis.

Of the 191 countries that have signed on to the Paris Agreement on climate change, the United Nations reports that only 113 have submitted updated pledges, and only a few, including the United States and United Kingdom have strengthened targets to cut emissions, with hopes that China will do the same before a global climate summit in Scotland this November.

Speaking in New York, following Ida’s rainstorms there, Biden spoke to that dual purpose in the nation’s investments.

“We’ve got to move,” Biden said. “We’ve got to move, and we’ve got to move the rest of the world. It’s not just the United States of America.”

Of late, that would seem to be the weather’s message, too.

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