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OPINION: Climate Change is an urgent, difficult challenge

By Lee Hamilton


We can no longer pretend that climate change is just a theory or that it’s a problem for the future. From deadly fires in Hawaii to devastating floods in the Northeast to record heat waves across much of the country, we see constant reminders of what a warming climate can do.

But how can we best respond to this existential threat? That’s a tough question with no easy answers. Climate change is a global problem that crosses every kind of boundary. Real solutions will require cooperation and partnerships. But we can’t wait for others to take the lead; every nation needs to do its share.

It’s easy to get bogged down in debates over who is most to blame. Is it advanced economies like the United States and Western Europe, which historically have produced the largest share of the greenhouse-gas emissions that warm the planet? Or is it big countries like China and India, which produce the most emissions today?

Some regions are more at risk and see the problem as especially serious. Islands and coastal areas are threatened by rising seas. Much of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia are vulnerable to drought, food insecurity, and conflict, which climate change worsens.

Here in the U.S., unfortunately, there’s still a lot of disagreement over the issue. A recent Pew Research Center survey finds most Americans want the government to support clean energy, including solar and wind power. But there’s a deep partisan divide: nearly 80 percent of Democrats say climate change is a major threat, compared to 23 percent of Republicans.

Scientists may disagree on the severity, but there’s a consensus that we have a problem. The most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change says it’s “unequivocal” that human activities, primarily the burning of coal, oil, and gas, contribute to global warming. Experts predict devastating consequences within decades if current trends continue.

We can rarely point to a specific catastrophe and blame climate change, but the evidence keeps piling up. Researchers have long warned that a hotter climate would bring more frequent and stronger storms, and we’re seeing that now. The average number of heat waves in U.S. cities has increased from two to six per year since the 1960s, the Environmental Protection Agency says. Phoenix saw a record 31 straight days this summer of temperatures over 110 degrees Fahrenheit. July 2023 was the hottest month, globally, in the 174-year records of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

More than 120 million Americans in the Midwest and Northeast have been under air-quality advisories this year because of wildfires in Canada. The fire that killed more than 100 people in Lahaina, Hawaii, burned fast because unusually hot weather had dried vegetation and because winds from a Pacific hurricane drove the flames.

International responses to climate change have proceeded in fits and starts. The Kyoto Protocol, which took effect in 2001, was a first effort but had limited support. The Paris Agreement, starting in 2015, required countries to set targets for cutting emissions, but disagreements remain over how to monitor compliance and how to protect and compensate vulnerable countries.

The issues are difficult. Should we prioritize slowing climate change or mitigating its impact? Do we focus on regulating industry or on promoting new technology? Should we turn away from fossil fuels immediately or gradually reduce their use? These are real questions.

But there shouldn’t be any doubt that this is urgent. The disasters that we’re seeing now are sure to get worse if we don’t act. It may be a cliché, but we only have one Earth. We need to do what we can to ensure future generations can live here and thrive.        

Lee Hamilton, 92, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.