Friday, November 26, 2021
Nov. 26, 2021

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In Our View: Action needed to prevent climate catastrophe

The Columbian
Published:

When it comes to the climate crisis facing Southwest Washington and the world, it’s well beyond time to act decisively. In fact, we’ve already failed to heed warnings dating back decades:

  • An oil executive told a gathering of his colleagues that burning fuel releases carbon dioxide, which over time would warm the atmosphere, melt ice caps and submerge New York City. That was in 1959.
  • Scientist and author Carl Sagan went before Congress to explain this so-called greenhouse effect and its long-term consequences. “There is a tendency to say, ‘They’re not my problem. … Let the next century worry about it,’ ” he said. “But the problem is … if you don’t worry about it now, it’s too late.” That was in 1985.
  • Almost 200 nations — the so-called Council of Parties — agreed on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That was in 1992.
  • These parties struck an international treaty known as the Paris Agreement, which set a goal of preventing the planet from heating by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) compared with pre-industrial levels, knowing that even then, many would suffer. That was in 2015.
  • “Our house is on fire,” warned teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, speaking for the generation about to inherit the predictable results of our collective inaction. That was in 2019.

Today, the climate crisis is no longer theoretical. In June, an unprecedented heat wave killed hundreds in the Pacific Northwest and pushed the mercury in Vancouver to a record-breaking 115 degrees. Our region can no longer rely on a durable mountain snowpack to feed our rivers and sustain our crops. Freakish weather and hellish wildfires are becoming more frequent and intense.

Yet this month, when the Council of Parties met for the 26th time, it reached an agreement that again fails to treat climate change as the emergency it is. Our house is on fire but — good news! — we’ve agreed on a paint color.

Even so, we can take some encouragement from the COP26 pact. It finally names the enemy — fossil fuels — and promises to “phase down” coal, the dirtiest of them.

The countries agreed to return by the end of 2022 with stronger plans to cut carbon emissions. The conference also outlined how countries will report their progress toward targets set by the Paris Agreement.

Although climate change is a global problem that requires international cooperation to solve, we can do our part locally. And we have.

Our state said “no” to the proposed Millennium Bulk Terminals facility in Longview that would have been the largest transfer site in North America for coal-laden ships bound for Asia.

Vancouver officials showed leadership in declaring a moratorium on fossil fuels projects, set to expire Dec. 8. The council should renew that moratorium.

And the city is creating a model for compact development in the Heights District as an alternative to the norm of single-family homes with cars overflowing garages. As envisioned, the district would be a walkable cluster of apartments, offices and stores where people would live, work, shop — all while driving less.

That’s what it will take to get ourselves out of this mess: reorienting our lifestyles.

As United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres put it, “Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.”

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