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The First of Three Climate Change Perils No One Is Talking About

Message Dagmar Honigmann

For decades, we've heard increasingly dire warnings about the climate disasters we can expect if we do too little to slow the harmful effects of fossil-fuel burning. However, there are actually three other results that many Americans would also consider disasters. The first is actually a political one.

Over the years, the Republican Party has become famous for fighting against efforts to reduce our use of coal, oil, and natural gas. For example, one early argument was that because scientists could give only us a very rough estimate of how much danger we were in (because there were so many factors to consider), it made sense to wait a bit until they knew more, rather than panicking. And once they knew much more, a new argument was that we should wait until they could show that any damage was actually being done.

Since then, scientists have learned a great deal more - and those previous Republican officials may have been half right, because several of those early dire predictions now look as though they were indeed off the mark. Unfortunately, some dangers may have been badly underestimated, not overestimated. So what can the Republican Party expect in another generation if one of its chickens comes home to roost - and has grown bigger than an elephant? It might just find itself paying an extraordinarily steep price...

For example, early estimates of how fast the Arctic ice cap was melting simply looked at how the ice-covered area was shrinking on photos, but the ice has also become much thinner - and slushier. (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration noted last year that 95% of the hard-to-melt oldest ice is already gone.) So according to a variety of new estimates, the Arctic Ocean could become completely ice-free during the summer in the 2040s or even 2030s, rather than late in the century. When long lines of cruise ships then start taking tourists to the North Pole, it will become front-page news everywhere in the country, and everyone looking at the photos will see for themselves that climate change was not a hoax - and probably remember just who convinced them not to believe the tens of thousands of scientists who had tried to warn us for decades.

Houstonians have already had to put up with floods in 2015, 2016, and 2017 that were each predicted to happen only once every 500 to 1,000 years - ending with four-and-a-half feet of rain during Hurricane Harvey. According to a 2017 estimate in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by the 2030s or early 2040s floods like the one that put large parts of New York City underwater during Hurricane Sandy will happen every five to ten years on average, not every 500. And parts of New Orleans have already been permanently abandoned. The melting of the Arctic Ocean won't actually raise sea level, because that ice is already floating in the ocean - but once it has happened, aren't many of the 126 million Americans who live on the coasts likely to draw a line from the melting of what they remembered as a continent-sized ice sheet to the fact that their homes have been ruined?

Some of the miles-deep glaciers covering Antarctica and Greenland are also in danger. Later this century, one of them after another is expected to begin collapsing - sliding headlong into the ocean, and raising sea level dramatically. Let's consider Florida as an example: Nearly all of that state is near sea level, even the interior (where the Everglades are)... so every time scientists report that the glaciers in another part of Antarctica have passed the point of no return, the news in Florida a generation from now might include an update on how much more that will raise sea level, followed by a map of the future Florida coastline once all of the already-collapsing glaciers and glaciers nearing collapse finish melting. (Even though that won't be for a few centuries, it's likely to make a good news story because that map will be missing much of the state.)

So a generation from now, do you suppose a lot of swing voters might be rather unhappy with what the Republican Party's policy have achieved? In fact, do you suppose even solidly Republican voters might be questioning whether they could have prevented their homes from being destroyed if they had voted differently in the past? And do you suppose a lot of children in those homes might grow up wondering how some of their parents and grandparents could have voted Republican the way they did (just as a child in the South today might wonder how their grandparents could have voted for politicians who enforced segregation, or a child in Germany might wonder how their grandparents could have voted for Hitler)?

We can't know for sure how voters will react once they figure out that many of our country's major cities and large parts of entire states will eventually have to be abandoned, and weather disasters are in the news constantly... but if I were a Republican official today, I do know I'd be wondering whether a single policy choice by my party could have spelled a permanent end to its competitiveness - or whether there is still time to start backpedaling really fast.

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Dagmar Honigmann is in her sixties and has worked as a writer and educator. She is the daughter of German refugees who made separate middle-of-the-night escapes from East Germany after World War II, in her mother’s case with help from an (more...)
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