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December 15, 2012

Avoiding the climate cliff:lessons from films of the season

NORMAN — In “The Dust Bowl,” Ken Burns documented the greatest man-made ecological disaster in U.S. history. The stories of those who lived through it as children lend particular poignancy to the folly of plowing under the prairie sod for unsustainable fields of wheat. Flash forward to 2012, as we witness first hand, similar devastation, but this time on a global scale. In “Chasing Ice,” James Balog captured the power of our warming planet via time lapse photography of glacial melting; entire landscapes have disappeared in as little as three years. Nova’s “Inside the Megastorm” uses the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy to illustrate how the effects of rising sea levels and temperatures intensify natural disasters.

Why should taxpayers foot the bill for environmental disasters that are increasingly exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels? Particularly while the oil and gas industries reap huge profits and billions in government subsidies? The estimated costs of Sandy alone are in the tens of billions, a price tag that doesn’t include the human health costs and loss of life.

The World Bank’s alert, “Turn down the heat: why a 4°C warmer world must be avoided,” reports that the most pessimistic climate change models have been the most accurate in predicting recent temperature rise. We are fast approaching the tipping point, when we will not be able to control the rate of warming. Then, tropical forests, peat bogs, permafrost and the oceans will stop absorbing carbon and start to release it. To avoid this climate cliff, we must reduce global CO2 emissions by 6 percent annually (Hansen et al. 2012). We need to act now.

The science is clear. The math is simple. We know what we need to do. Economists across the political spectrum agree that the price of carbon fuels fails to reflect the real cost to taxpayers of burning these resources. Putting a price on CO2 emissions is the most efficient way to reduce warming and spur production of sustainable forms of energy. Even some energy companies (BP, Shell and Exxon Mobil) agree.

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