US leaders need to address consequences of climate change

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While campus was shut down for winter break, my complaints about cold weather were met with reprimands from angry friends and family who had unhappily trucked through a Chicago winter for much longer than I had. Living in Miami, we’re used to talking about weather fairly often, but the climate discussion has taken on a different angle this year with El Niño. This phenomenon, combined with global climate change, has produced some extremely destructive weather events in the last few weeks. Yet just three weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, the climate remains an issue that is largely ignored and even reproached.

El Niño is a natural event that occurs when the usual easterly winds over the Pacific Ocean weaken, so warm water that would normally build up on the western side of the ocean sloshes back to the east and creates a pileup of warm water on the coasts of South and Central America. This happens naturally and periodically, about every seven to 10 years. This cycle affects global weather events and the United States generally experiences warmer temperatures and more precipitation.

According to the 2015 climate data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), this year was the second-hottest, third-wettest and the most extreme year for weather on record.

It can be easy to ignore climate news like this because we have become numb to the consistent rhetoric of environmental catastrophe after hearing so much about breaking records and massive changes in geodynamics. In reality, most of our lives have not changed drastically since climate change was brought to public attention.

I emphasize that “most” of our lives have not changed, because people around the world are in fact suffering, and even dying, due in part to climate change. To round up just some of these devastating weather events, on Dec. 28, 2015, 18 million people in states ranging from Illinois to Texas were affected by flash flooding according to The Washington Post.

Flash floods like these have been closely linked to climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency releases fact sheets on the predicted and observed climate change effects by region. Climate scientists predict that “precipitation in the Midwest is expected become more intense, leading to increased flood damage, strained drainage systems and reduced drinking water availability.”

The recent downpour caused “major inundations” of homes and roadways and irreparable damage to infrastructure. It broke the flood record that was set in 1993 by a disaster that resulted in $15 billion in damage. According to the Weather Channel, as of Jan. 3, at least 28 people have been killed by this weather system and its flooding.

The economic toll of this destruction is reason enough to place more emphasis on climate issues. Just a few days later, a “freak” storm caused the North Pole to reach temperatures above freezing – a whopping 50 degrees warmer than normal. Of course, floods existed before the industrial revolution ignited climate change, but the severity, magnitude and sheer number of extreme weather events is unprecedented.

Excluding severe weather and only taking into account warming global temperatures, “climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year between 2030 and 2050; 38,000 due to heat exposure in elderly people, 48,000 due to diarrhea, 60,000 due to malaria and 95,000 due to childhood malnutrition,” according to the World Health Organization. This is an epidemic.

Climate change needs to be addressed as a critical issue for politics and policy, not just a niche interest. Events associated with climate change cause increased health care costs, economic hardship and significant disruptions to the lives of American citizens.

Republican frontrunner ahead of the Iowa caucuses Ted Cruz has not even clearly articulated whether or not he believes that climate change is real. Only three of the Republican presidential candidates have called for some kind of action on the issue and even fewer have articulated any specific steps.

Last month the COP 21, or the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, made a momentous deal to slow temperature rise. One hundred and eighty-six countries, including all significant emitters, have submitted concrete steps agreed upon to curb their emissions. If we want to be international leaders, our domestic leaders need to address climate change and make significant policy proposals to protect our economy, health and safety.

Annie Cappetta is a sophomore majoring in ecosystem science and policy and political science.