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Merkley says climate change now the biggest threat

After spending decades working against the nuclear arms race, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley on Saturday told an Ashland Peace House Awards banquet that he sees nukes slipping into second place, with the main threat to human survival now being global warming.

While nuclear weapons are still a huge threat — and cost the nation record amounts annually — Merkley said our much longer fire season, low snowpack, more acidic oceans and three worst droughts ever, need to be regarded as an “assault” on our national security.

“We indeed are in trouble,” the Oregon Democrat told an audience of 150 at Medford’s Inn at the Commons. “We need to have a blue-red alliance on this. Corporations need to say they want to be involved.”

Merkley, who often stages town hall meetings all over the state, said the message of climate change needs to reach rural America, where “they hear that it’s fake, not real."

"They get emails like that from the Koch Brothers and others,” he said.

However, said Merkley, the facts are clear, that atmospheric carbon was increasing 1 part per million in 1960 and it’s twice that now — and fire season has lengthened by 50 days in 40 years.

Merkley said he reaches voters in rural Oregon by asking how many people fish. All hands go up, so he describes warming as an assault on rural America, that is reducing stream flows and fish populations, “then I ask how many are for fishing and they break into applause.”

Merkley said Americans need to grasp that conflicts like the war in Darfur are not the usual power struggles but are the world’s first wars triggered by global warming and drought, thus creating economic uncertainty and violence. In turn, millions of refugees from the Middle East are stressing the European Union, he added.

To thunderous applause, Merkley lauded President Obama for his opposition to offshore Arctic drilling and the Keystone pipeline, and said he hoped Obama and future presidents would keep such fossil fuel extraction off-limits. Keystone, he notes, was the “point of attention” for the U.S. to hold off from opening up tar sands exploitation.

Merkley recently filed a “Keep It In The Ground” bill, calling for “no more leases or renewal of expiring leases” for such extraction. He plans to promote the legislation to the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris this December.

“If we can take it to Paris, it will be with the recognition that if we are burning one-fifth of our reserves, our planet becomes uninhabitable," he said. "This is a test of human survival on the planet. Stop burning is the major test and we are failing it. We are the first generation to see the effects of global warming and the last generation to be able to do something about it. We can’t wait for the next generation to do something about it.”

Peace House honored several others with its annual awards: former Peace House President Ruth Coulthard, a volunteer for the homeless; Kathy Keesee and Dagoberto Morales of UNETE; Allen Hallmark of Citizens for Peace and Justice and Veterans for Peace, Rogue Valley Chapter 156.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.