By Senator John Kerry
Twenty years ago, Republican President George Herbert Walker Bush gathered the nations of the world in Rio to confront the challenge of global climate change. Two decades later, the challenge is more real, and the damage of climate change more pervasive, but we are further behind than ever in addressing the issue. With each passing day, the danger and the urgency only grow.
Promises of action from both political parties have been replaced by a conspiracy of silence.
Conventional wisdom tells us that the chances of Congress acting on this issue is rapidly approaching zero. How dramatic and sad that twenty years later, as nations gather for a second time in Rio, we have failed to prove the conventional wisdom wrong.
Thomas Paine described today's situation well. As America fought for its independence, he said: "It is an affront to treat falsehood with complacence." Yet when it comes to the challenge of climate change, the falsehood of today's naysayers is only matched by the complacency of our political system.
In the United States, a calculated campaign of disinformation has steadily beaten back the momentum for action on climate change. Proponents have cowered in the face of millions of dollars of phony, contrived "talking points,' illogical and wholly unscientific propositions and a general scorn for the truth wrapped in false threats about job loss and tax increases.
But the threat we face from climate change is not an abstract concern for the future. It is already upon us, and its effects are being felt worldwide, right now. The examples are palpable in our daily lives.
Last year, many northeastern states experienced some of their wettest summers. Meanwhile, persistent heat and below average precipitation across the southern United States created record-breaking droughts in Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas of greater intensity than the 1930's "Dust Bowl."
Every new report that's published suggests the situation is getting grimmer. Last year, a new assessment found that the Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice-free within this century, likely in the next 30 to 40 years. Think about that for a second. Within a generation -- maybe two -- kids will grow up learning geography on maps and globes that show simply an empty blue expanse on the top of the world.
And the effects don't end there. With the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet alone, global sea levels could rise by as much as 3.26 meters in the coming years. And the Pacific and Atlantic coasts may be in for a 25 percent increase above average levels by century's end.
Benjamin Strauss, co-author of a new study on topographic vulnerability, said it best: "Sea level rise is like an invisible tsunami, building force while we do almost nothing We have a closing window of time to prevent the worst by preparing for higher seas." That's why, in cities like Boston, officials are actively planning for how to manage 100-year floods that are now arriving every twenty years.
The dangers we face could not be more real. All you need to do is look out your window.
We just had the warmest March on record for the contiguous United States. The naysayers will tell you that one hot year doesn't prove global warming; but year after year, new records are being set: 2010 was the hottest year on record, and the last decade was the hottest decade since we started recording the weather.
At the Boston Marathon, temperatures hit 89 degrees Fahrenheit, more than 30 degrees higher than average. Official jackets, gloves and coffee? How about hats, sunscreen and Gatorade -- and medical tents filled with heat-exhausted runners starting at mile ten of the 26-mile course from Main Street in Hopkinton to Boylston Street in Boston.
In the end, the question is not whether we're going to pay for climate change. We're already paying for it. The real question is whether we walk a path that addresses it now in a responsible way and that also helps us break humanity's addiction to oil, cleans up our environment and creates jobs -- or whether we suffer the consequences later on a massive, unpredictable scale in the form of environmental devastation, conflict, famine, poverty and reduced economic growth for decades to come.
Now is the time to confront the conspiracy of silence on climate change. It is time for complacency to yield to common sense, and narrow interests to bend to the common good. Future generations are counting on us. We all herald our mothers and fathers' "Greatest Generation." But we should also ask what our kids will say about our generation if we don't wake up to reality.