What Will Historians Say About Recent U.S. Congresses?

American history is filled with ugly periods of political confrontation and no-nothingness and recent years are no exception.

Political dialogue between two of our founders, Jefferson and Adams, was vindictive and nasty. It was only as both approached their final years that comity began to appear in their relationship and they died as reconciled friends on the same day, July 4, 1826.

Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States, disregarded an order from the Supreme Court and forced thousands of Native Americans to move from Georgia to the Oklahoma territory, a lasting stain on U.S. history. The Native American Party, renamed in 1855 as American Party and commonly called the Know Nothing movement, was an American political party that operated on a national basis during the mid-1850s. It promised to purify American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it met with little success. There have been several other periods of anti-immigrant fervor in American history, dating to the early days of the Republic, and even continuing today.

A number of politicians of both major political parties in the U.S. in the middle of the 19th century continued to support slavery, leading to the formation of the Republican Party in 1854 and the election of Abraham Lincoln as President in 1860. The post-WWII period saw the rise of McCarthyism in the U.S. and it took years for the public and policians to address the damage this ‘ism’ was doing to America. And today we have loud voices taking issue with some of the fundamental tenets of American democracy.

I state all this as my way of getting to what triggered this piece, my concern about the know-nothingness exhibited by people who deny the obvious, that the earth is warming, the oceans are gathering more heat, glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and weather patterns are changing as a result of the several greenhouse gases we are adding to the atmosphere, mainly carbon dioxide and methane. The following cartoon by Toles in the Washington Post of 27 September 2015 was the immediate trigger:

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It is my firm belief that when historians look back on this period in American history they will be unkind to those politicians and other leaders who disparaged or minimized the reality of global warming and subsequent climate change for their ignorance, short-sightedness, and failure to prepare for the future. My cynical self also believes that many of these ‘leaders’ do understand what science is so clearly saying – it is basic physics after all – but adopt their public positions for political or other self-serving reasons. Even the Pope has enriched this discussion by stating in his recent encyclical: “The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming.”

Whatever their reasons they are failing the American public and future generations by failing to act now in prudent ways to forestall greater difficulties and more expensive solutions in the future. A theme I always espouse is that a major responsibility of public officials is to look down the road, anticipate problems, and take steps to prevent problems from developing into crises. In my opinion the U.S. has failed to do this in recent years due to unusual (but not unique) polarization in the U.S. Congress and between the Congress and the President, with a high price attached. Not only is climate change a real, measurable phenomenon that we are still struggling to fully understand with all its consequences, but by failing to take the necessary steps now to move the U.S. more quickly to a clean energy society we are limiting the U.S.’s ability to compete as effectively as it could in future global energy markets. This future is coming, as more and more people around the world are recognizing and incorporating into their plans. Nevertheless, elements of the U.S. Congress still resist change, protect vested interests, and protect their political selves by attacking and denying well documented science. They should be held responsible for limiting the U.S. response to climate change and a changing energy world, and history will surely do so. Unfortunately, they will no longer be in office or responsible for corporate decisions and have to face up to their failure of vision and shortcomings.

The solutions are public education and the ballot box, which in democratic societies can be a slow process. But the understanding of climate change and its impacts on precipitation patterns, animal and plant diversity, storm intensity, public health, and coastline flooding is coming, as is the transition from a fossil-field based global economy to one increasingly dependent on renewable energy. It is Congress’ responsibility to set policies that advance this understanding and movement forward.