Climate change should be everyone’s #1 national security issue. John Kerry evidently agrees, saying in Indonesia on February 17: “In a sense, climate change can now be considered another weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” It literally impacts everything: energy resources; water availability; oceans, lakes, and fisheries; agriculture and food production, war and peace within and between nations. And the reality of climate change stares us in the face: the unusual, sometimes unprecedented weather patterns; the extremes of floods, cold, and draught. As President Obama said in his State of the Union message, climate change is a scientific certainty; there should be no disputing the reality and the threat it poses to all living things. Yet we look in vain for leadership on this issue from the United States, the supposedly “indispensable nation.”
Life and politics go on as though we are not in crisis. Here, even baby steps to improve the environment and reduce reliance on fossil fuels bring on intense lobbying by opponents, helped by huge infusions of money from Exxon/Mobil and the like. Kerry is right: These groups are trying to “hijack” the climate change debate, and if public opinion is any barometer, they’re doing a pretty good job of it. A Pew Charitable Trust poll in February 2013 found that only 34% of the US public considered climate change a top priority for the government, well below budget, immigration, and gun legislation (www.pewresearch.org/key-data-points/climate-change-key-data-points-from-pew-research). Even Democrats (42%) and independents (27%) were not very enthusiastic about the importance of climate change. Comparing attitudes on climate change worldwide, the Pew poll found that the percentage of Americans who consider climate change a threat to their country (40%) is far lower than anywhere else in the world!
The hostility to scientific findings clearly is due in good part to the threat they present to corporate interests. But it also stems from an anti-intellectualism on the far right, an element of The Paranoid Style in American Politics that Richard Hofstadter first wrote about in the 1950s. Corporate hostility, it need hardly be said, is based on profits; the ideological right’s hostility is based on fear. Together, these forces preach conspiracy in defiance of facts and logic. And as Hofstadter warned, paranoid politics will never go away.
James Lawrence Powell, a geochemist who served on the National Science Board under Presidents Reagan and G.H.W. Bush, quotes a number of dire warnings in an article for The Nation (February 17, 2014). Here are three:
- Coal “is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet. . . . Rising sea levels hang “like the sword of Damocles over our children and grandchildren.” (James Hansen, the retired NASA scientist who first drew our attention to the human sources of global warming.)
- The effects of climate change will not end “for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide emissions are completely stopped.” (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
- The scale of damage from climate change could equal that of “the great wars and the economic depression of the first half of the 20th century.” (Stern Report, 2006)
Thus, probably like you, I’m led to ask: Will it take a climate catastrophe to mobilize legislators to action? Will John Kerry, having denounced the “tiny minority of shoddy scientists … and extreme ideologues” who question global warming, now do the right thing and reject the Keystone XL fracking plan? Will the Obama administration finally display leadership at the next international conference on global warming? Stay tuned.