Lee Hamilton: Climate change – a national challenge that must be faced

As much of the country suffers through a torturous winter, a glance back at 2018’s weather-related news reminds us that we can no longer dodge the reality of climate change.

I don’t mean that last year’s fires in California, coastal flooding in the Carolinas and drought throughout the West were new evidence of climate change. Rather, they shifted the national mindset. They made climate change a political issue that cannot be avoided.

The earth’s climate changes all the time. But what we’re seeing today is different: the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather. Wet places are becoming wetter; dry places are growing dryer; where it was hot a generation ago, it’s hotter now; where it’s historically been cool, it’s growing warmer. The global impact of human activity – specifically, the burning of hydrocarbons – is shuffling the deck.

Warmer overall temperatures have lengthened the growing season across the U.S by about two weeks compared to a century ago. But the impact on fruit and grain production isn’t just about the growing season; plant diseases are more prevalent, and the insects that are vital to healthy agricultural systems are struggling. Insects that spread human diseases, like mosquitoes and ticks, are flourishing.

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Precipitation is also changing. There will be more droughts and more heat waves, which will become especially severe in the South and West and in cities.

The rise in sea levels will be even more disruptive. This poses a threat to densely populated coastal areas; in the U.S., about 40 percent of the population lives directly on the shoreline.

I’m not mentioning all this to be alarmist. My point is that dealing with climate change constitutes a huge, looming challenge to government. And because Americans are fairly divided in their beliefs about climate change, policymakers struggle to come up with politically viable approaches.

The problem is that politicians in Washington like to talk about climate change in general, but we haven’t seen any concerted consensus-building to deal with it.

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And despite the growing impact of extreme weather, the opposition’s point – that policies to fight climate change will impose hardships on working people, especially in manufacturing states – still has some merit. Some states have taken important steps to address climate change, even though it’s best dealt with on the federal level.

Only recently have thoughtful politicians begun to ask whether the political system can deal with the challenges posed by climate change. The one thing we agree on: climate change will place real stress on the system in the years ahead.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government and a former Democratic congressman.