Nature is sounding a wake-up call to a somnolent nation. But is the United States rational enough to listen?
Monster fires are sweeping across tinder-dry forests in the West, killing dozens and rendering the air quality in West Coast cities among the world’s worst. Meanwhile, slow-moving hurricane-turned-tropical-storm Sally chugs through the Southeast, its torrential rains causing miles of flooding.
These are the kind of calamities those who sounded early warnings about climate change have been predicting for decades. And yet a country that once had an incipient bipartisan consensus about the need to tackle global warming now languishes in lethargy, misled by a president whose all-consuming self-interest renders him oblivious to the claims of science, caution, or the future. Meanwhile, his party, which includes at least some members who know the threat is real, stays largely mute.
How far we’ve fallen since the days when Republican presidential candidate George H.W. Bush promised to act on global warming, saying he would combat the greenhouse effect with “the White House effect.” Of course, Bush’s fall came fast. John Sununu, the new president’s first chief of staff, waged a fierce campaign against meaningful action on global warming — and he and his allies carried the day. Lip service aside, Bill Clinton, faced with congressional opposition, didn’t do much that mattered, and when Al Gore lost the contested 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush, any prospect of progress was put on hold for eight years.
But the 2008 campaign seemed to set the stage for future action. Both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain supported a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, which would have been a huge step forward. However, when McCain lost to Obama, Republicans retrenched further on climate. Support for cap-and-trade faded, and the GOP basically started echoing the denialist nonsense of the fossil fuel industry and its various fronts and shills.
Obama turned to executive action to sidestep Republican recalcitrance, issuing his Clean Power Plan regulations. In the international arena, his administration took the lead in negotiating the Paris Agreement, with its voluntary emissions targets.
That, at least, was progress.
It’s tragic that a man who obviously has little knowledge of or interest in the issue beyond a worry that climate action would hurt the US economy, and thus him politically, has been able to stymie climate action. But he has. Trump rarely even gets asked about climate change any longer. However, he was put on the spot during his recent trip to California, when Wade Crowfoot, the Golden State’s secretary for natural resources, implored him not to ignore global warming.
“It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch,” Trump replied.
Crowfoot demurred: “I wish science agreed with you.”
“OK, well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” the president rejoined.
Call that what it is: nonsense and obfuscation.
“The president may not know, but scientists know plenty about climate change,” says Princeton University atmospheric scientist Michael Oppenheimer. For example, that the hotter and drier conditions caused by a warming planet can help transform small fires into raging infernos. And that warmer ocean waters generate more intense and rain-loaded hurricanes. And that those hurricanes may also move more slowly and thus linger longer as the planet warms.
We also know the window is closing for staving off the worst effects of global warming.
Unlike Trump, Democratic nominee Joe Biden has an ambitious and well-regarded climate plan.
In February, I asked several Trump supporters at a New Hampshire environmental event where Trump primary rival Bill Weld was speaking if they believed in global warming. One scoffed at the notion. But another disagreed, saying he did think it was a serious problem. How, then, I asked, could he support Trump, with his do-nothing denialism?
“I don’t think people think about stuff like that,” he replied.
Everyone who believes in science needs to start doing so.
Climate’s disruptive chariot hurries near.