This election is all about jobs and the economy, right? That’s what the candidates are saying, and that’s clearly what the American public is demanding. We all want a strong economy with a lower unemployment rate. But to me that’s not the most pressing issue of the day. The most pressing issue of the day is the environment and it’s being virtually ignored this campaign season.
Think about it. Every day stories from around the globe bombard us, telling of new developments and problems caused by climate change. A recent New York Times article quoted storm-surge experts saying rising sea levels require increased storm protection for the city. If that protection is not put in place, experts say downtown Manhattan could soon resemble New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. There goes the financial district and a large chunk of the nation’s economy.
Also, a recent University of British Columbia study found that ocean fish could soon lose as much as 25 percent of their body weight because they cannot maintain their weight in warmer waters. So our haul of food from the oceans could soon drop substantially. What’s that going to do to our food supply?
Another recent study done by a European NGO called DARA shows climate change is already contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people each year and costing the world more than $1.2 trillion. This is cutting 1.6 percent from global GDP — and 1.6 percent of global GDP is more than the annual GDP of many small, developing nations. Are we going to sit by and do nothing?
Perhaps by now you get my point. As President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney and the countless candidates for federal office debate how to turn around the economy, how to get Americans back to work, how to make health care accessible to all and whether or not Iran is becoming a nuclear power, this other issue eclipses them all. But it is not getting the slightest bit of attention.
If climate change continues to raise sea temperatures and levels, and cause icebergs to melt at their present rate, in a few decades our economy is not going to matter much.
The United Nations coined the term “environmental refugee” more than a decade ago to describe people displaced from their homes and villages because of storms and desertification caused by climate change.
Last year, the New York Times’ Green blog reported:
“In 2010, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimated that more than 42 million people ‘were forced to flee due to disasters triggered by sudden-onset natural hazards,’ the United Nations report said. In 2009, 17 million people were displaced by such disasters, it said, and in 2008, 36 million.”
We in the U.S. are lucky to have a strong economy so that people displaced by Katrina and other natural disasters eventually find new homes and new jobs. But if lower Manhattan were flooded, even our strong economy could not overcome the possible displacement of millions of people (and their jobs).
Meanwhile our politicians dither. Neither presidential candidate offers much by way of hope on the environment. Romney seems to care not at all about it. And President Obama has done little to protect the environment so far, unless you count a feckless attempt to throw some of the recovery money in the direction of renewable energy companies.
Our politicians won’t get active on this issue until the voters demand it. Voters are understandably more concerned about their problems today (to wit, finding work). But if they don’t start looking they risk being blindsided by the most important issue of all.
Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.