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OpinionEditorial

The climate crisis is already here 

A Bahamas flag flies tied to a sapling,

A Bahamas flag flies tied to a sapling, amidst the rubble left by Hurricane Dorian in Abaco, Bahamas on Sept. 16, 2019. Credit: AP/Ramon Espinosa

Seas of debris. Houses gone. Boats tossed like bathtub toys. Trees stripped of leaves.

We see these images year after year. In Florida. And Puerto Rico. And New Orleans. And Long Island. And Houston. And North Carolina. And, more recently, in the Bahamas.

These are not isolated events. They are part of a mushrooming whole, the wreckage of storms made worse by climate change. And without strong action to combat it, we are doomed to relive this cycle of destruction and despair. Instead, renewable energy investments globally have dropped 14% this year compared with 2018, and carbon emissions are rising at their fastest rate since 2011, thanks to increased energy consumption led by China, India and the United States.

The week ahead is critical in this battle. The UN's Climate Action Summit  begins Monday. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres wants nations to come to New York with specific strategies to adopt to fight climate change; dozens have said they want to increase pledges made as part of the Paris agreement in 2015. Unfortunately, that group will not include the United States.

President Donald Trump, a noted climate change denier, is not expected to attend. That's a mistake, but not a surprise. Instead, he plans to send Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who also downplays the severity of climate change. Trump wants to pull out of the Paris pact, but he cannot do so formally until Nov. 4, 2020, the day after the presidential election. That agreement requires signatories to limit temperature rise to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). But some places already have exceeded that limit, including Long Island, according to a Washington Post analysis of climate data that found Suffolk County has increased by 2.3 degrees Celsius and Nassau by 2.2 degrees. Global temperatures are on track to rise as much as 5 degrees Celsius  by 2100, according to the UN. That would be catastrophic.

This summer alone saw heat records shattered across the Northern Hemisphere, disappearing sea ice, unprecedented fires in the Arctic, melting glaciers in the Himalayas, a massive die-off of clams in rapidly warming waters off the coast of Uruguay, and innumerable local  disasters.

Then there's Hurricane Dorian. It made landfall in the Bahamas on Sept. 1, with wind gusts of 220 mph and a 23-foot storm surge — the fifth Category 5 storm in four years. Climate change did not cause Dorian, but it made the storm stronger than it would have been not so long ago. That's because warmer ocean waters fuel stronger hurricanes with higher winds, and warmer air holds more moisture, which means more rain and more flooding. New research suggests that warming also slows down hurricanes and has done so more commonly in the last few decades. That has devastating consequences when these monsters stall over populated coastal areas, as we saw with Dorian, Harvey in Houston in 2017, and Florence in North Carolina in 2018.

America is making only scattered progress in fighting climate change, led by states like New York and California, which have committed to carbon-free or carbon-neutral economies by midcentury. On the other hand, more homes are being built in floodplains, fewer people are buying flood insurance, municipalities aren't adopting stricter building codes that help withstand the effects of  climate change, and devastated communities continue to rebuild in the same places and in the same ways. Meanwhile, the Trump administration adopts policies and rolls back regulations to encourage more burning of fossil fuels, like its recent moves to eliminate rules limiting methane emissions and revoke California's waiver to set strict limits on vehicle emissions. And it wants to end tax credits for electric vehicles, when it should be extending them.

It's climate malpractice, and it's downright deadly.

Polling suggests the nation is not only ready for an end to this behavior, but also that it is eager for action. Two-thirds of Americans now say that climate change is a serious problem or a crisis, and the  majority wants immediate action on global warming. Only 18% in a CBS News poll last week said  no action is needed. The strongest voices are the ones with the most to lose — the young. They were in New York in force on Friday for a youth climate strike that drew hundreds of thousands as a prelude to the UN summit. May they lead the way.

These young people  understand that we need to make a faster transition to solar and wind power, and are frustrated at how unnecessarily difficult that seems to be. Consider the obstacles facing companies trying to build wind farms and bring the power ashore on Long Island. The insanity is illustrated by opposition in wealthy Wainscott to a proposed power line being brought ashore, well underground, mostly by owners of second homes whose primary residences are elsewhere and who would not be on Long Island much during construction, most of which is planned for the winter.

Our leaders need to wake up, and the rest of us need to more strongly convey that urgency. This crisis is not lying in wait in the future. It's here. And if we don't act collectively to push back, the sea will continue to swallow our coasts — here, there and almost everywhere.

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