Election and Climate Change Heating Up

By Thomas Armbruster:

The Financial Times complained in an August editorial that “no one is talking about climate change in the U.S. election.”  The New York Times talked about a “spiral of silence” by the candidates on climate.  Indeed, the issue did not come up in the first debate.  During the October 9 Trump-Clinton debate the words “climate change” were spoken.  Once.  In answer to a question from the audience about energy, both candidates had good things to say about alternative energy and Hillary Clinton touted America’s new found energy independence.  She also described climate change as a “serious issue” but failed to lay out a plan on climate during the debate.  Environmentalists may be dismayed at the lack of attention given to the issue, but the reality is improving our odds vis a vis climate change will not depend on the next President. It will depend on us.

All of us are contributors to the air, water, and solid waste streams.  Unless we are living a Yanomamo Tribe lifestyle, our actions, the cars we buy, the amount we recycle, the plastic we use, all of our little decisions add up to actions that will ultimately determine by just how many degrees the Earth warms.  That the Earth is warming is irrefutable.  And here is where we need to be a bit more humble and realistic.  Each of us has a greenhouse gas footprint.  And we all have our passions.  I like to fly.  I burn aviation fuel, or AVGAS and burn about 8 gallons per hour.  Less than Leonardo diCaprio might use in his jet on his way to the next Save the Planet conference, but an extravagance nonetheless.  I would love to see general aviation and the airlines come up with alternatives and they are working on it.  Siemens has debuted an electric plane and solar powered craft are taking to the skies.  The aviation industry and community, like many other industries and many other people, are headed in the right direction.

The auto industry now has Tesla vehicles in the mix and Toyota’s hydrogen Mirai vehicle is popular with owners in California.  I understand how hard it is to keep climate change at the top of the agenda, personal or national. At the personal level there is soccer practice, the dentist, that overdue report, the brakes, birthdays and commitments.  We’re lucky if saving the world comes in sixth or seventh on our list.  On the national level, politicians know that the economy and jobs outrank the environment as voter concerns.  And yet, we found the national will, the global will really, to pass the Paris Climate accords and for climate to be front and center still in the national debate, even if only briefly.  And not only that, governments are also taking action.

The U.S. Navy plans to reduce petroleum use in its “non-tactical fleet” by 50% by 2020.  The Defense Department also has incentives for energy producers to install alternative sources of energy on their bases, as long as they are more efficient and less costly than current diesel powered installations.  The U.S. military also sees climate change as a potential source of conflict, causing refugees and humanitarian crises that the military will have to deal with.

If you live inland, there is also the reality that climate change and sea level rise is not as pressing a problem as it is for folks in Miami or Long Island.  It’s hard for the issue to seem real.  I’m fortunate to have lived in one of the world’s most vulnerable places to sea level rise–the Marshall Islands.  At just two meters above sea level, the Republic of the Marshall Islands has already experienced more frequent inundations, droughts, and tropical storms.  They’ve seen homes wash away and shorelines erode.  Coral bleaching also threatens their fisheries.  Fortunately, the Marshallese are exceedingly eloquent about what this challenge means to their culture and their identity.  The Marshall Islands Foreign Minister helped put together the “High Ambition Coalition” at the Paris Climate Summit.  I nominated young Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil Kijiner to speak at the Climate Summit at the United Nations in New York.  Kathy submitted this poem, “Tell Them” to the nominating committee.  Word came back that some committee members were in tears.  She had taken this scientific, dull, and vague future threat and made it real.  Kathy’s powerful poem at the UN, dedicated to her daughter was also a hit, according her a rare UN General Assembly standing ovation.  The last speaker to receive one was Nelson Mandela.  Kathy’s UN performance again reminded people that climate change threatens families and real people.

I’m not too worried that the Presidential candidates did not dwell on the subject.  They won’t invent the energy sources that will power the future, they won’t plant the trees or make the bike paths that will make our planet greener, but we will.  We get it.  We know it is important.  The scientists have done and continue to do their job, telling us where we are heading and how we can self-correct and we will.  Think of London’s haze from 150 years ago, or the rivers in the United States that died or caught on fire and are now teeming with life.  We can live greener lifestyles, make better choices and support policies that point us towards a better future for succeeding generations.  We won’t do it all at once and we will learn along the way.  We will do it step by step.  And when the electric airplanes are mass produced, I will fly one and happily save 8 gallons of AVGAS per hour.

Meanwhile, the candidates will do what politicians have always done.  Read their constituencies and reflect their sentiments in speeches and broader policies.  But we will be the ones to make or break the environment.  On this global challenge, I am optimistic.

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.


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