OPED: Conservative care for environment not unprecedented

York Dispatch
  • This is what happens when the conditions upon which our society was built are suddenly destabilized.
  • How do we deal with disasters that are coming at unprecedented rates and scales?
  • Thankfully, conservative care for our planet is not unprecedented.

“Unprecedented” is defined as “never before known or experienced” according to dictionary.com.  It’s a word I’m seeing more often in the headlines as humanity is forced to deal with our rapidly changing climate.  

FILE -In this Monday, Dec. 5, 2016 file photo, Allan Rivera holds onto his son Nathan Rivera, 23 months old, as he looks at the remains of their home for the first time, in Gatlinburg, Tenn.  Wildfires ravaged the tourist town of Gatlinburg, in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains, killing 14 people, destroying businesses and leaving hundreds of people homeless just after Thanksgiving. The devastation was voted Tennessee’s top for 2016 in a poll of Associated Press editors and broadcasters, followed by the Nov. 21 school bus crash in Chattanooga that left six elementary school children dead.(Andrew Nelles/The Tennessean, File via AP)

Take the recent fires in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for example. Gatlinburg sits at the base of Smoky Mountain National Park and relies heavily on tourism. The park itself is located in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, which have the highest annual rainfall of the southeastern United States. The Smokies get their name from the fog and low-level clouds that bring the area so much rainfall, about 58 to 60 inches a year.

But weeks ago, the Smokies were actually smoke-filled from the fires spreading through Tennessee following a period of crippling drought. The United States Drought Monitor reported that, as of Dec. 6, 81 percent of Tennessee was in “severe” to “exceptional” drought. 

According to USA Today, the fire that destroyed much of Gatlinburg “had started in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park before hurricane-force wind gusts sent it down the mountains into the tourist town." It also injured more than 175 people and burned more than 2,400 buildings. One firefighter who came from an hour and a half away to fight the fires said, “Everywhere you looked, there were fires everywhere. It was like driving into hell.”

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“This is a fire for the history books,” said Gatlinburg Fire Chief Greg Miller. “The likes of this has never been seen here.”

Jon Clark


This is what happens when the conditions upon which our society was built are suddenly destabilized. We will be seeing many more of these "unprecedented" events as our planet's climate becomes more unrecognizable to us. Society will be severely challenged as we wander into unknown territory. How do we plan coastal infrastructure around sea level rise now that we have and will have a constantly shifting benchmark for centuries to come?  How do we deal with disasters that are coming at unprecedented rates and scales?

We are days away from 2016 being the hottest year on record. This will be the third-straight record-breaking year. Of the 17 hottest years on record globally, 16 have been this century. Last year at the Paris climate talks, the world agreed to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century and to try to keep it under 1.5 degrees Celsius.  Averaging NASA and NOAA’s data, 2016’s temperature through November is 1.23 degrees Celsius (2.21 degrees Fahrenheit). We are dangerously close to the 1.5 degree Celsius mark right now.

According to new research, humanity is pumping climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere 10 times faster than at any point in the past 66 million years. The World Meteorological Organization’s new chief, Petteri Taalas, addressed the startling high temperatures globally in 2016 with this statement: "The alarming rate of change we are now witnessing in our climate as a result of greenhouse gas emissions is unprecedented in modern records."

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We have a choice to make, right now.  We can continue on the path of President Obama, one of regulatory control.  It may not be the best path, but it was one of necessity, given Congress’ inaction on the issue. The destination is clean air and water, reduced risk to our national security, U.S. energy independence, and a vibrant economy using 21st century energy sources.  The destination is a climate somewhat resembling the one my generation grew up in and a better chance for society to adapt to the changing climate. The destination is a livable planet for our children.

Or we could take an alternative path that leads us to the same destination. Republicans have full control of the House and Senate and have the White House. We have the opportunity to implement a market-based solution to climate change that puts a fee on carbon emissions and returns the revenue back to households, no growth of government required.  Let the costs for emitting large amounts of carbon pollution in the atmosphere fall on those who are doing the polluting.

Thankfully, conservative care for our planet is not unprecedented.  Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law, the very law that President Obama has used as basis for his Clean Power Plan. Under George H. W. Bush the Clean Air Act was strengthened. In the words of Ronald Reagan: “If we’ve learned any lessons during the past few decades, perhaps the most important is that preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge; it’s common sense.” 

In my opinion Teddy Roosevelt was the greatest American Republican conservationist. Teddy once said, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” Putting a fee on carbon pollution and returning all of the revenue to households equally is the right thing to do. 

Jon Clark is Mid-Atlantic regional co-coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby and lives in Dover.