The Climate Change Conundrum

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Abandoned Boat
Nejron Photo /

Something in the climate change debate has put most nonprofits on the sidelines—or, perhaps, has caused nonprofits to sideline themselves. Let’s bust out of our topical siloes and realize that the White House’s very long report on climate change is not solely the province of environmental groups.

It might be the abject nonsense of the right-wing opposition. For example, Dana Perino, the former spokesperson for President George W. Bush (now a Fox News celebrity) called upon the meteorologists invited to hear President Obama’s presentation of the study results to ask the president about Benghazi—not quite on point, one might say. The otherwise intelligent and articulate right-wing pundit Charles Krauthammer took a page out of the playbook of know-nothings to announce that he isn’t impressed with numbers or with the consensus of scientists on climate change. Another source suggests that the world should begin to look at the positive effects of global warming induced by human activity.

When the discussion of climate change is focused on avoidance and abject denial, it’s understandable that most nonprofits leave the field to the environmental experts to fend off the incessant attacks of people who think that climate change comes from the same people who faked Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon in a Hollywood studio. Even the harshest of critics wouldn’t dismiss the concept of global warming as the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” as it was described by former Senator James Inhofe. Inhofe and others contend that global warming is a good thing, creating economic growth potentials that are important and laudable. Inhofe isn’t pointing to a growing market for renewable energy and its byproducts, either; he’s coming from some sense that the U.S can capitalize on global warming and make it perform differently for the American economy.

Rather than trying to convince Fox News and Charles Krauthammer, the bigger issue is figuring out what to do. So much of what gets proposed or even implemented to address global warming seems inconsequential and ineffective, which may be as big a sidelining factor as any other. What adds to the distress are those political leaders who speak about the importance of taking action against global warming, but talk a better game than they deliver, taking positions on many occasions that contradict their public stances.

So this CR is addressed to the nonprofit sector, the bulk of nonprofits that aren’t all that active on the climate change issue. Yes, you all sort of get it; it’s kind of hard not to. But somehow the issue gets relegated to the environmental groups, despite the fact that if the problems of manmade climate change are going to be tackled and mitigated, the stake ought to be more broadly shared.

The President’s Report

The import of this White House report, the National Climate Assessment, is that the impact of human-induced climate change isn’t something off in the distant future, but present here and now, with effects seen in every corner of the United States. Most parts of the U.S. have seen an average warming of nearly two degrees during the past century. While there have always been severe weather events, global warming is causing more common and severe heat waves in some places and torrential rains elsewhere. If changes aren’t made, the temperature rise could be as much as 10 degrees by the end of this century.

“Yes, climate change is already here,” said Richard Alley, a Penn State University climate scientist not connected with the White House report. “But the costs so far are still on the low side compared to what will be coming under business as usual by late in this century.” In other words, deal with climate change now, because the consequences, costs, and obstacles will be worse the longer inaction persists.

If people took the time to read the report, they would see that it is not necessarily about polar bears, whales, or butterflies,” meteorologist Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia said. “I care about all of those, but the NCA is about our kids, dinner table issues, and our well being.” Those dinner table issues will have many geography-specific implications.

In Alaska, glaciers and frozen ground are melting. No longer protected by winter sea ice, Alaskan coastlines are being eaten away. Around Lake Erie, agriculture might benefit from a somewhat longer growing season in Upstate New York and in Ohio, but increasingly violent storms will have devastating effects on crops, and with less ice on the lake during most winters, there may be algae blooms and invasive species that threaten the Great Lakes fishing industry.

Low-lying coastal cities like Norfolk, Virginia and Miami, Florida are threatened by rising sea levels. The report suggested that the sea level could rise as much as four feet by the end of this century, which could mean devastating storm surges in coastal cities such as Boston, New Orleans, Houston, and New York. In contrast, the Southwest and the Rocky Mountain states could be affected by increasing droughts, causing “killer wildfires.” These symptoms aren’t just major predictions from the report; they’re being seen today.

“We recognize the particularly vulnerable position we are in,” said James Murley, executive director of the South Florida Regional Planning Council, one of the authors of the report. “Some of Florida’s top tourist attractions, including the Everglades and Florida Keys, are threatened by sea level rise, with estimated revenue losses of $9 billion by 2025 and $40 billion by the 2050s,” according to the report. Steve Davis, a wetlands ecologist for the Everglades Foundation, read the report and concluded that climate change threatens Florida’s fresh water supply, necessitating action on Everglades restoration: “We need to do it sooner than later because the water supply is at risk,” he said.

The seemingly always drought-ridden state of California appears to be in store for more frequent and more severe droughts accompanied by a large increase in the number of wildfires. That just about always leads, in California, to issues about water, with the likelihood that the ongoing depletion of the groundwater will continue—and, due to climate change, at a faster rate than ever before.

Besides droughts and sea-level changes, the other major impact might be significant precipitation in some areas. In Iowa, for example, some 730,000 acres weren’t planted because of record rainstorms. “The window for farming is small and getting worse, not better,” said Matthew Russell, who farms 110 acres near Des Moines, Iowa. “It creates a lot of anxiety.”

What nonprofits can do

First, they can follow on a small scale what Stanford University announced it would do with its behemoth endowment. Stanford is the first major university to divest itself of stock holdings in coal companies. Good for the Cardinal! Although President Obama and his Democratic opponent in 2008, Hillary Clinton, both campaigned on the notion that they would support “clean coal,” there is no debate that “clean coal” is an oxymoron. Obama and Clinton both knew better then and now, but they didn’t want to alienate voters in West Virginia and other coal states.

Nonprofits can do the same at a small scale, examining whether their investments contribute to “social injury” through carbon pollution. Irrelevant? Hardly. How many nonprofits, in order to use their cash for productive purposes, do overnight sweeps or invest in short-term mutual funds even though the amounts of money they’re dealing with are relatively small? Every nonprofit, for both symbolic and substantive purposes, can and should examine how their funds are invested, even in those overnight sweeps, and make sure that the investments don’t lend themselves to carbon pollution.

Those nonprofits that keep their investments in some fossil fuel firms and in energy producers should be upping their shareholder resolution activity. They can call for company-specific climate change reports, examining what the corporations are or aren’t doing to address climate change and global warming, or they can call on corporations to make technological changes to support or use clean technologies. Nonprofits aren’t without cards to play.

Second, nonprofits can hold the Obama administration’s feet to the fire. Why focus on the Obama administration, as opposed to the climate change deniers in Congress and on television? Because the Obama administration has the power to act on some issues that are up for a decision by the White House and executive agencies.

A key example is the future of the XL Pipeline. If the president were serious about the implications of this report, it would seem that the Pipeline is a goner. However, rather than simply putting the issue to bed, the White House has delayed a decision until after the 2014 midterm elections so as to avoid embarrassing Democrats running for reelection, such as Senator Mary Landrieu in Louisiana and other red-state Democrats whose campaign platforms call for the construction of the pipeline. The White House’s explanation that the pipeline decision needed more research and analysis was flimsy. Either the president says that the pipeline is just one more inconsequential item in the array of contributors to global warming and therefore doesn’t need to be stopped, or he says that the climate change reports requires actions up and down the line—including the XL pipeline.

In a similar vein, the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t been exactly burning up the racetrack in developing plans and regulations for limiting carbon emissions from existing coal-based power plants and developing standards for new ones—though the standard for new ones should be no new coal-fired plants and probably the closure of many existing ones.

Overall, the report leads to an inescapable conclusion that the nation has to sharply reduce its reliance on fossil fuels for energy. “Now, the nation’s most comprehensive study of climate threats shows the toll on our health, our communities, and our economy will only skyrocket across the country if we do not act,” said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. “By leaving dirty fossil fuels in the ground and continuing the transition to clean energy solutions like wind and solar, we can create good American jobs and power homes and businesses nationwide without polluting our air, water, or climate.”

Third, nonprofits can use the report for discussion and analysis within their organizations and with their stakeholders and constituents. The report was written in relatively simple language in order to avoid what often happens with environmental analyses—presentation in technical language that makes them difficult for non-scientists to understand. There is enough substance in the report regarding the impact of climate change on different regions and different communities that it makes sense to put the National Climate Assessment report on the agendas of nonprofit boards, staff, and assemblies to discuss how its findings relate to them.

That means bringing climate change issues to the table in settings where global warming due to manmade activity might not typically be a concern. In city planning and city government budgeting, special attention has to be paid to cities’ infrastructure, which could be severely taxed in the event of severe weather events. Using the model of Maryland under the leadership of Governor Martin O’Malley, states and cities could be planning how for how to address rising sea levels, temperature increase, and severe weather consequences.

Although most Americans, unlike Perino and Krauthammer, truly understand the reality of climate change, only one-third think that climate change will impact their lifestyles and living standards. How wrong can they be! This is where nonprofits, as agents for connecting ordinary citizens to the nation’s body politic, should be looking for the connections of this report to their regular work and helping their constituents see that a rise in temperature of a couple of degrees and a four-foot sea level increase will be anything but business as usual.

Looking backward and forward

There were 300 scientists involved in the production of this climate change report. Maybe they might be wrong in some of the outside details; it might not be quite as hot as they predict, or sea levels might not rise quite as high as they seem to be heading to do. But a quarter or half a degree off in the temperature increase or a few inches less in the rise of sea levels still means disastrous conditions for the communities affected.

Although Congressional Republicans greeted the report as Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell did—with straight-out rejection, warning citizens of President Obama’s likely action to impose an “energy tax” and to mandate low-flow toilets, the report actually got the green light from unlikely sources, including Chevron and ConocoPhilips.

The ultimate solution for all Americans is really two-part: to mitigate what can be mitigated in terms of human activity contributing to global warming and to find ways of adapting to the aspects of climate change that may be simply unavoidable. The response of McConnell and others is really a wing and a prayer strategy: Duck the issue as long as possible and hope that the 97 percent of scientists who broadly buy into the climate change analysis are somehow massively, collectively wrong.

Part of the adaptation process is testing and implementing new technologies, which will generate new business opportunities. The charge voiced by the likes of Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, that the report will simply lead the Obama administration into strategies that bring the economy to a screeching halt, is silly and myopic.

Remarkably, in some of the states where severe and specific impacts are already visible from climate change, governors and legislatures are wearing blinders. In Florida, Governor Rick Scott has said that he doesn’t believe in climate change and global warming. The state’s environmental agency apparently doesn’t either, despite, for example, an increase in the sea level around southeastern Florida of about 12 inches since the 1970s. But science isn’t based on belief; it’s based on investigation, analysis, and testing. Belief in the supernatural is one thing, but climate change as explained by scientists is based on evidence. The findings of the National Climate Assessment don’t need “belief.”

Perhaps nonprofits sideline themselves because the issue of global climate change is presented in terms so dire and with predictions so pessimistic that the issue becomes overwhelming. It is so large, so imposing that nonprofits simply throw up their hands and say that there is nothing that they can do, that somehow the nation and the world will come to grips with climate change in a way that puts the issue to rest and we’ll all go home happy. But it’s not that way at all. Climate change is occurring on many fronts, in several geographies, and, according to the report, at a faster pace than many had anticipated. You don’t watch global climate change as an outsider, because its impacts make you automatically a player on the field. Nonprofits have to own up to their collective concern for climate change and push in whatever way they can to get business, government, and the American public to take it seriously and to take action.

  • Tricia

    Beautifully, thoughtfully, written!

  • ya Lynn Goldfarb

    Divesting is an important tool in addressing climate change, but the only thing that will make the transition to clean energy in time to prevent the “catastrophic” climate change the IPCC reports are warning about is a national carbon tax, paid to consumers, not the government. People switch to solar and wind enegy as fossil fuels become increasingly more expensive when the tax escalates, using the carbon tax money to cover any temporary cost differentials during the transition period. Solar and wind will be cheaper than fossil fuels when they scale up. Eight Nobel economists support this plan. See the volunteer Citizens Climate Lobby for details.

  • Katherine Wilson

    Thank you for articulating this so well. I am sharing your article and the findings you discuss everywhere I can.

  • Kathleen Schomaker

    Thank you for this breakthrough reflection regarding the systemic impacts of climate change on ecological and human well-being and the need for our non-profit sector to step into visionary leadership in response to the call of this challenge.

  • Terry Fernsler

    You forgot to mention the impacts of migration on an already-overpopulated world with a shrinking land mass. As we realized from the Indian Ocean Tsunami, many financially-poor people live along coastlines. They may not only lose a place to live, but also livelihoods as ocean acidification increases. They will need to go somewhere.

    And OMG, where are we going to put all those people in the United States displaced from their high-priced beachfront properties?

    Seriously, the singly most important act a nonprofit can take is to plant or keep a tree, because of the amount carbon woody plants keep on the ground. While most nonprofits may not be able to plant trees, they can keep them from being cut by instituting reduce/reuse/recycle cultures. This is something that nonprofits can do, and do immediately.

    Third Sector Radio USA

  • Terry Fernsler

    In a neoliberal society, even nonprofits fall prey to following narrow agendas. We must remember that we are stewards a of a slice of the commons. While a carbon tax is certainly laudable, and should be pursued, it will come later and the final decisions rests with others. There are actions nonprofits can take NOW that do not rely on others. I worked with many nonprofits–even environmental ones–that would not even recycle, because it was too much trouble.

  • Bob Diamond R.Ph

    Why CO2 Is Good – Benefits to Humans

    “Our mission is to educate the public on the positive effects of additional atmospheric CO2 and help prevent the inadvertent negative impact to human, plant and animal life if we reduce CO2”

  • Christina Cuevas

    Thanks for the suggestions about what nonprofits can do about taking action on climate change. Adding their voices to the national dialogue is important. Taking local action is too.

    Because we are a coastal community, we are very aware of the effects of climate change on the changing coastline, water quality and the health of fish and residents.

    We are encouraging our nonprofits to operate in a “green” manner so as to reduce the carbon footprint of their organizations and improve the health of the environment and the people who work in these agencies.

    The Monterey Bay Green Business Program ( works with organizations to get certified as green operations. We are investing in local nonprofits to help them meet the standards of this program. They are joining the ranks of the for profit sector in our county to address climate change. We urge others to encourage and support nonprofits to operate in a green fashion.

    Christina Cuevas