08/08/2013 11:55 am ET | Updated Oct 08, 2013

We All Burn Because the GOP Wasted 30 Years

Ignorance as a Platform

If you voted for Reagan, Bush senior, or George Bush Jr. or any senator or congressman who denies the reality of climate change, you must take responsibility for all of its terrible consequences. You voted for candidates who openly dismissed environmental concern as a liberal plot. Ronald Regan thought trees caused air pollution. Reagan actually said in a 1979 radio address and then in 1981, "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do." Or more elaborately, "Eighty percent of air pollution comes not from chimneys and auto exhaust pipes, but from plants and trees." To this day, conservatives defend this absurd claim as valid, perpetuating the confusion between carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide and the role of volatile organic compounds in creating smog. Under George Bush Jr., the White House buried the "National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change," which was produced by U.S. scientists not as a liberal plot but in accordance with the law using the best data and analytical techniques available. Some U.S. scientists resigned their jobs rather than give in to White House pressure to underreport global warming. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) claims climate change is a hoax. Rick Santorum (R-PA) says the concept of man-made climate change is both "patently absurd" and "part of a 'scheme' by the left to get more government regulation." Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) cites the bible's great flood to prove climate change, if real, is not man-made. The Utah House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning climate alarmists and disputing any scientific basis for global warming. The list goes on and on; anti-science has been a foundation of Republican platforms for decades now. Such willful and joyful embrace of ignorance has long been a hallmark of GOP politics, and has led us to the changing climate we see today.

In a democracy, voters must own the decisions of their representatives if voting to reelect politicians espousing toxic views. Republicans are now the proud owners of climate change. Their grandchildren will be delighted.

We Knew Then and We Know Now

The biggest heartbreak of a changing climate is that it did not need to happen. Twenty two years ago I was part of the United States delegation to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) when I was the Assistant Director for International Science and Technology in the White House. We know now, more than two decades later, that the predictions scientists made in the final report have proven extraordinarily accurate, and much on the conservative side. What strikes me all this time later is the tragedy of lost opportunity. Due to intense conservative opposition to science on the basis of nothing but faith, we have now passed the time in which we can stop the world from warming catastrophically even if we take drastic action. The costs of responding now will be exponentially greater than what they would have been if we acted in 1990. But we won't act even today because the House Science Committee is filled with members who believe climate change is a liberal hoax, along with the idea that the world is 4,000 years old and evolution is a conspiracy to denigrate religion. We are fighting battles that were decided hundreds of years ago. And we knew 20 years ago that climate change was real and caused by human activity; we knew that. But so-called skeptics refused to accept the conclusions of thousands of scientists from 166 countries -- because they suddenly became professional climatologists who knew more than all the global experts. Climate deniers are now no different from flat-earthers clinging to a belief at odds with reality, indifferent to overwhelming data and undeniable evidence contrary to that belief.

The world's conservatives are like a surgeon who is presented with a patient with all the classic symptoms of a heart attack. The evidence of a heart attack is overwhelming, but the doctor decides not to help the patient because it is possible the guy has gas. The patient could have been saved with a simple and inexpensive intervention; but due to the doctor's inaction the patient now incurs the costs of a long stay in intensive care, follow up physical therapy and a life-time of expensive drugs. All preventable if the doctor had just looked at the data in front of him. But the doctor heard the voice of god telling him to go play golf.

The Day Has Arrived

Climate change is here, and here to stay. A new report from the American Meteorological Society (a nasty den of liberal conspirators deviously disguised as neutral scientists) demonstrates the point in its summary of 2012: Arctic sea ice reached record lows; sea level hit an all-time high; and greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels (rather than from trees) broke all records. Last year was one of the top ten warmest years ever recorded; and the United States experienced its hottest year ever. These are not isolated statistics taken out of context; these are data points along a robust trend driving toward an ever-more rapidly changing climate. The science is clear, the conclusions robust: the earth is warming much faster than natural background rates, and that warming is caused by human activity. To deny that reality is no different than dismissing atoms as nature's building blocks, refuting that DNA contains genetic code, or claiming that energy does not equal mass times the square of the speed of light.

Faith is no substitute for objective reality when making public policy. A preacher might believe his skin is immune from the effects of heat; but put his hand over a hot flame and his flesh will burn, indifferent to his contrary belief. Climate change is as real as that flame; denying its existence will not diminish the very real impact.

Big Consequences

Due to conservative intransigence we will be witness to an extraordinary transformation. The threat of massive migrations unprecedented in human history, wars over dwindling or shifting resources, catastrophic storms and flooding and dramatic changes in agricultural production are not sufficient to concern climate deniers. So let's look at something closer to home and more immediate: the health effects of a changing climate.

• We will see (are seeing) an expanding range of tropical diseases and new strains of old diseases as they move north, more and more severe allergies as ragweed season grows longer, more mold and fungus in hotter more humid weather, change in rainfall patterns affecting food production, more extreme heat waves, and more frequent and severe droughts and longer and more intense fire season.

• As warmer weather moves north, disease vectors go along for the ride. Many of those vectors are insects, like mosquitoes, which are expanding their range to a backyard near you.

• Water-borne diseases will increase in frequency because warmer water expands the season and range of diseases-causing organisms.

• Rodents also proliferate in the growing temperate regions with milder wet winters; they themselves are disease carriers, and also are reservoirs for disease-carrying ticks.

• We can look forward to a host of ugly diseases, including: dengue fever, malaria, yellow fever, Hantavirus, leptospirosis, Japanese B Encephalitis, Elephantiasis, Lyme's disease, West Nile, Leishmaniasis, Chagas disease and Typhus.

• A long drought in the southwest has reduced predator populations, leading to an explosion of white-footed mice, which carry Hantavirus.

• New Yorkers first suffered an outbreak of West Nile virus in 1999, a new scourge for the city, which is now an annual threat.

• We will also get new strains of old diseases. A new strain of West Nile first detected in 2002, is moving quickly. The virus infected about 175,000 people in 2007, killing 117.

• An increase in carbon dioxide supercharges the growth of the most aggressive pollen producers, including hay-fever causing ragweed and the trees that give us the worst springtime allergies.

• With a warmer climate we will see an increase in the proliferation of mold and fungus, the spores of which love warmer temperatures and higher levels of carbon dioxide.

• Severe droughts in Africa lead to massive dust storms from that continent's expanding deserts. Those clouds travel across the Atlantic and into the lungs of unsuspecting citizens in Florida, who have seen a 20-fold rise in asthma in the past several decades.

• Changing weather patterns will bring floods to some areas and more severe droughts to others, a longer and more extreme fire season, and changes to agricultural production, all of which are direct threats to human health.

So when grandma gets malaria, or comes down with a bad case of West Nile, write a letter of thanks to your local Republican representative.

Conservatives have on their shoulders a world that will change dramatically because they prevented us from acting when we had the chance. We knew. We knew 20 years ago and had a good idea even 30 years past; you can imagine the frustration in watching this unfold knowing that opposition to the scientific conclusion was not due to questions about the data but due to ideology, religious fanaticism and right wing lunacy. Irrationality, disdain for the truth, contempt for science, and the warm embrace of willful ignorance are symptoms of the same malady, a conservative movement sick with extremism borne from faith-based reasoning. And the world burns as a result.