I return to this topic because it is a growing global problem that must be addressed, and because I am disturbed by the continuing resistance by some members of the U.S. Congress to acknowledging the reality of global warming and resultant climate change. I am also scared because some of those members are in leadership positions in the 115th Congress that is just getting underway.
What I consider to be uninformed and unscientific global warming denial or minimalization reminds me of several incidents in my own lifetime – the reluctance of some national leaders in the UK and the U.S. in the 1930s to realize the full implications of Hitler’s aggressive and inhumane practices; suppression of public discussion of the dangers of civilian use of nuclear power in the name of developing nuclear weapons to oppose Soviet aggression in Europe; failure in the 1960s to understand the nationalistic focus of Vietnam’s struggle for independence from France in the name of resisting Communist advances in Asia; resistance to environmental protection in the name of economic development; and more recently our invasion of Iraq in the name of disabling non-existent weapons of mass destruction. I know that some, perhaps many, people will disagree with some or all of these characterizations, but the lesson for me is that leadership that is not open to a range of views can lead us into quagmires of human suffering.
Global warming and climate change is one of those issues. James Inhofe, the new Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, is a human-induced global warming denier, apparently based on his religious beliefs. He may be sincere in these beliefs – how could global warming be occurring if G_d didn’t want it to happen – but just as sincerely I believe him to be wrong. I am a trained scientist who believes that science is an avenue to understanding and truth as best we can know it, and the science increasingly says that carbon emissions are increasing the greenhouse effect in the earth’s atmosphere. This changes the energy balance between the earth and the sun, resulting in slowly but steadily increasing temperatures on earth. What is especially scary is the heating of the oceans, both surface and at depth, which provide the energy for hurricanes, typhoons, and other weather events. By changing the climate this warming also changes precipitation patterns that are our major sources of water, and produces adverse effects on environment and public health. By not addressing these issues now our leaders are committing future generations to having to deal with these issues, and at much greater cost. It has also always bothered me that those most vulnerable to the adverse impacts of global warming are those least responsible for and least able to deal with it – poor people in many countries and on island nations.
So what difference does it make if Sen. Inhofe, and others like him, are climate change deniers? Unfortunately, he and others (here I bring to mind House Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader McConnell) are in a position to stop or at least slow down federal action to control greenhouse gas emissions, delaying for at least two years U.S. action, in concert with others, to counteract climate change. His and their behavior also sends a signal to young people to discount science and overwhelming scientific consensus, on an issue that will undoubtedly impact their lives. It is also a negative reflection on the quality of U.S. governance.
I would also note that these leaders will not be around to reap the whirlwind of their decisions. Climate change is a long-term issue, although some impacts are already becoming visible, and those making decisions for short-term politichal gain will not be around to face the voters when the bill comes due. Pressure from an educated public is the best avenue I see to changing this situation and putting us on a more responsible public policy path. Here’s hoping that not too much damage is done in the 115th Congress, and that climate change issues will be an important topic of discussion in the 2016 elections.