Where do we go from here?

Douglas Woodmansee - Guest columnist

I am writing in response to the column by Herb Day entitled “Wizards of state fleecing the flock” which was published on January 9, 2020.

In his column, Mr. Day suggests that climate-related taxes and climate research are merely excuses for politicians to extract more dollars from taxpayers. While trying to humorously support his thesis, Mr. Day makes a connection between greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and a few others) and ozone.

These two issues are connected, but in a much clearer and more important way than Mr. Day suggests. I think the successful response to the ozone problem can serve as a roadmap for responding to the greenhouse gas problem.

Three decades ago, it was discovered that ozone concentrations in the upper atmosphere were being depleted by chlorine/fluorine/carbon-based pollutants (CFCs) that were coming from a variety of human activities. Ozone in the upper atmosphere reduces the amount of ultraviolet (UV) light that reaches the surface of the earth. UV light is dangerous to people (as anyone who has had a bad sunburn can attest) and to all other living things.

With leadership from the United States, an international treaty was developed to phase out use of CFCs. President Ronald Reagan strongly recommended ratification of the treaty and the U.S. Senate did so by a vote of 83-0 on March 14, 1988. Eventually every other nation on earth joined into the treaty.

The CFC phaseout took time but by 1996 overall ozone levels and the size of the accompanying Antarctic ozone hole had stabilized. Since then, data collected by NASA show that atmospheric ozone concentrations are slowly increasing, and the ozone hole is slowly getting smaller.

We don’t hear much about ozone depletion these days because the international community, with leadership from President Reagan, identified a problem and took positive steps to correct it.

We currently face a different threat. The production and use of fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas, coal and a few other fuels) by virtually every person on the planet has resulted in a dramatic increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Other human activities including deforestation and certain agricultural practices add to the problem.

Scientists have known for over a century that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere affects how much of the sun’s energy gets trapped in the form of heat close to the surface of the planet. More heat at the earth’s surface and in its atmosphere, means changes to our weather.

Most places are expected to get warmer and stormier. Some places are expected to get drier while others are expected to get wetter. Water melting out of glaciers and the polar ice caps is expected to raise sea levels dramatically.

In order to use the response to ozone depletion as a guide to dealing with greenhouse gas accumulation, we must think about long-term consequences and not just about short-term gain and loss. We must take the science seriously, cooperate with other nations and with each other, and cast votes for what is best for all of us, not just what’s best for our party.

The politics of climate change is not about “Wizards of state fleecing the flock”; it’s about figuring out where we go from here. Either we find a way to stop climate change from happening or figure out how to live in the new climate we are creating.

In either case, things are going to change.

Dealing with climate change will require our politicians to make hard decisions that will impact the lives of all Americans.

Douglas B. Woodmansee, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus of Biology, Wilmington College

Douglas Woodmansee

Guest columnist