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John Tirman

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Climate Change: As the World Burns, Part 2

Posted: 07/01/2012 1:14 pm

Among the unnoticed ironies of the controversy over Obamacare is the effect it had on climate change. No, not the trees felled to produce the paper for the Supreme Court's decision, but the tendentious politics besetting the health care debate in 2010 that convinced several lawmakers and the Obama White House that they could not push an energy bill in that same session. Ryan Lizza's fine piece of reporting on that in the New Yorker ("As the World Burns") in the autumn of 2010 showed this effect very clearly when quoting Obama adviser David Axelrod: "The horse has been ridden hard this year and just wants to go back to the barn."

During the victory dance over the Court's Obamacare decision, the West was on fire and record heat and severe weather punished much of the rest of the country. It is hard not to draw the connection between our abject failure to address climate change and the septic politics that have infected Washington. We know this, of course, but every now and then the profundity of it really hits home.

Out West, the right-wing blogger Michele Malkin and her family were among the unfortunate thousands to be evacuated due to the Waldo Canyon fire near her home in Colorado Springs. It's hard to imagine how harrowing that must be, especially with small children. Remarkably, however, Malkin's writing about the events there failed to notice or admit that the wildfires erupting all over the West -- due to drought and high temperatures -- very likely are the consequence of human-induced climate change.

This sort of denial or head-in-the-sand neglect is evident in Mitt Romney's campaign, whose website does not mention climate change at all. Of 27 issues listed, none addresses global warming, although his position on regulating greenhouse gases -- "Amend Clean Air Act to exclude carbon dioxide from its purview" -- does give the back of his hand to those who seek some remedies.

The right wing's petulant attitudes about climate change are perplexing for those of us who appreciate traditional conservatism's innate caution about preserving what we have in society and questioning radical disruptions. And what we are beginning to understand -- what the scientific community is trying to tell us -- is that climate change is the most destructive disruption imaginable, and it is already well underway.

A recent TEDx lecture by David Roberts, a writer with Grist magazine, sums up what we are facing very neatly. It is deeply disturbing. We are looking at temperature rises that could literally devastate the planet within 100 years if we remain on the current track of pouring carbon into the atmosphere and oceans. What much of climate science is finding recently is that the pace of change is faster and more odious than what many anticipated just a few years ago. For example, a new study from the National Research Council (a branch of the National Academy of Sciences) concludes we are witnessing faster sea-level rises than expected, based on their examination of the U.S. West Coast. And the U.S. Geological Survey found similarly troubling news about the East Coast.

For the right wing, such studies are frequently disparaged as so much alarmism. Being a harsh critic of climate science is now standard rhetoric in the Republican Party, akin to its heated opposition to gay marriage, Obamacare, and Planned Parenthood. Romney, typically, will not show an ounce of courage on this issue.

But what's more difficult to fathom is the near silence about global climate change by Democrats, and particularly by President Obama. Yes, he does talk up "green" jobs and has made some important regulatory changes. But the overall record of the Obama presidency on climate is disappointing to most activists. "Environmental protection did not prove to be a first-tier activity for the White House," a clean air activist told a reporter.

And there's the rub. It's not that Obama doesn't recognize the importance of the issue; it's that climate change has been made into a difficult political sell in a weak economy. The White House failed to back up the energy bill in 2010, and has proposed little since. "I suspect that over the next six months, this is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign," the president told Rolling Stone magazine two months ago, "and I will be very clear in voicing my belief that we're going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way. "

But even that mild expression of interest is not in evidence in the campaign. This is all the more remarkable because the public seems to be on board. In several polls this year, large majorities identify climate change as scientifically credible, already underway, and a serious problem. What the public does not identify, in large numbers, is climate change as something that directly affects them (they may start to with the extreme weather we've been having). But they do support by 2-to-1 margins strong federal policies to reduce greenhouse gases.

This broad public support provides the Democrats with a strong foundation for speaking up on this issue. And Obama will need to make climate change a pivotal part of his campaign to have the credibility in a second term to deal with it assertively.

His natural constituencies will need to make this clear -- that their support is contingent on strong action to stem carbon emissions. No other issue -- not health care nor jobs nor Iran nor immigration -- is anywhere nearly as crucial as this.

One knowledgeable comment about this last month's extreme temperature, hundreds of wildfires, and raging storms was especially sobering for me as the father of a 13-year-old. That is that within her lifetime, within her young adulthood, this kind of weather could be the new normal. It will be the new normal if we don't make the simple, affordable changes we must make. That's what the flames -- not the politicians -- are telling us.

 
 
 
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