Commentary: State of our union is linked to the state of our climate

President Trump opened his State of the Union address by acknowledging the heroic first responders who came to the aid of victims in the floods that devastated Houston and the wildfires that engulfed California. It’s a pity he didn’t mention what made these natural disasters so deadly and costly: Climate change.

Last year, natural disasters produced between $300 billion to $400 billion of record-shattering damage. The severe weather behind these disasters has worsened over the years because of rising temperatures. Some of last year’s most costly disasters include:

• Hurricane Harvey, which dumped four feet of rain on Houston and cost an estimated $198 billion.

• Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm that caused $66 billion in damages.

• Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico with close to $100 billion in damages.

• California’s most destructive wildfire season in history, with $13 billion in damages.

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Both the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA confirmed that 2017 was the hottest year on record without an El Niño. As global warming continues, we can expect such natural disasters to be more intense and more frequent, eventually outpacing our ability to respond and adapt.

Responding to threats is clearly a priority of President Trump’s. According to his own military leaders, climate change is a clear and present danger. In 2017, Trump’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis told the U.S. Senate, “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today.”

In the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review, the military warned that climate change is a “threat multiplier,” aggravating poverty, political instability and social tensions. On our own shores, rising seas threaten our military bases from Maine to the Florida panhandle.

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While the executive branch stays stubbornly ignorant of this issue, lawmakers see it with clearer eyes. In December, 106 members of Congress sent President Trump a letter asking him to include climate change in America’s National Security Strategy. “It is imperative that the United States addresses this growing geopolitical threat,” the bipartisan letter stated.

The bipartisan drumbeat for climate action grows with each passing month. In the House of Representatives, the Climate Solutions Caucus had 18 members at the start of the 115th Congress, half Republican and half Democrat. Since then, its ranks have steadily increased to 68 members while maintaining party balance.

Caucus co-chair Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican, has said, “I came to realize that this issue was hyperpoliticized and highly polarized. And we knew that unless we worked to change that, to extract some of the politics from the issue… then it would be very hard to have a rational conversation about what’s happening and what we can do about it.”

What can we do about it?

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A solution that finds support from conservatives and liberals alike is an approach known as Carbon Fee and Dividend. This policy would put a fee on all oil, gas and coal used in the U.S. That would make clean energy cheaper and more attractive than dirty, polluting energy. The money raised would be returned to Americans in the form of a monthly rebate. In 20 years, Carbon Fee and Dividend would reduce our CO2 emissions 50 percent below 1990 levels. Plus, it would create jobs and put money into the pockets of hard-working Americans, so people can adapt and prosper.

Despite the president’s omission, it’s obvious that the state of our union is closely linked to the state of our climate — and it’s encouraging to see that Republicans and Democrats in Congress understand the risks our nation faces from a failure to act. When Congress introduces and passes bipartisan climate legislation, the state of our union will be undeniably stronger.

Reynolds is executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

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