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Will our broken democracy fail the climate test?

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We have entered a pivotal period in American history, one that will tell whether our arthritic, not-so-representative democracy can respond to the critical challenge of the 21st century.

That, of course, is climate change. The world faces a well-known, well-researched, well-documented, and increasingly evident peril from the human-caused warming of the planet. We need large reductions of carbon-dioxide emissions by 2030. And yet, in the last two-and-a-half years, the United States has gone from a global leader on the issue to a laggard whose gridlocked government simply ignores the problem.

Events in recent days underscore the see-no-warming, hear-no-warning nature of our government. Fewer than three years ago, we had, in Barack Obama and John Kerry, a president and secretary of state who helped lead the world to adopt the Paris Agreement, a hopeful if not wholly adequate step to stave off the worst effects of climate change. But Donald Trump is pulling us out of that landmark pact and, as Foreign Policy reports, has put us on the sidelines in the United Nations’ planning for a fall summit on climate matters.

His administration won’t even acknowledge the problem. After an Arctic Council meeting in Finland, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo highlighted the way melting Arctic ice was opening up new sea routes and thereby cutting shipping times — but said nothing about the warming that’s melting the ice. Further, the United States reportedly kept the council from mentioning climate change in the joint statement it issued on Tuesday.


No surprise there. In his former incarnation as a US representative from Kansas, Pompeo took more money from the Koch Brothers than any other House member, and as a Koch-backed Republican robot, tried to kill tax incentives for wind power, as climate activist Bill McKibben recounts in his new book, “Falter.” Pompeo has gone from a Koch congressman to a yes-man serving a scientifically ignorant president who has labeled climate change a “hoax” created by the Chinese.


But it’s not just our improvident president who is the problem here. Denialism has become an (awkward) article of ideology in a Republican Party funded by and beholden to the fossil fuel industry.

All this comes as the UN scientific policy group, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, warns that 1 million of some 8 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction in the decades ahead. There are many causes, but climate change is prominent among them.

Anyone not comatose, captive, or incapable of observation should by now realize that the long-predicted effects of global warming — extreme storms, intense flooding, encroaching oceans, severe droughts, fiercer fires, deadlier heat waves — are making themselves alarmingly obvious. A report produced by Trump’s own administration warns that climate change is already “transforming where and how we live” and, absent action, will cause “substantial damages to the US economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.”

Most Americans understand that: Seventy-three percent believe global warming is occurring; with 62 percent saying human activity is mostly responsible; 56 percent think their families will be harmed by climate change. Seventy-two percent say the issue is at least somewhat important to them.


And yet, it’s still acceptable in Republican circles to put off action with vapid and easily refutable deflections: There is no consensus on human-caused climate change; or the climate has changed before, and this is nothing different; or, there was once a magazine article about global cooling, so today’s scientists shouldn’t be believed; or even, carbon dioxide can’t be contributing to global warming because human beings emit it when they exhale. Which is why a Republican government, led by a denialist president who didn’t win the popular vote and abetted by a small-minded coal-state senator, twiddles while the globe burns.

We have a broad national consensus about the problem and the need for change. We have policy tools. We have viable energy alternatives. What we lack are federal leaders ready to act. If we can’t produce them in the 2020 election, our system will have proved itself too dysfunctional to contend with the threat we face.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.