Article by Nick Zotalis
A famous quote, the origin of which is unclear, goes something like this: Whenever a shocking new scientific fact is uncovered, first people deny it, then they say it conflicts with the Bible, and finally they say they knew it all along. For these reasons, it is never clear where the United States stands regarding climate change.
For those who believe in the power of science to improve the world through medicine, space exploration, infrastructure, the internet, and so much else, climate change is a non-debatable issue. It is not hard to find mountains of scientific consensus pointing to the truth of man-made climate change.
For everyone else, years of denial are now challenged by reality: Cape Town, the second largest city in South Africa, the third wealthiest city in Africa, and home to four million people, will completely run out of water by April. According to National Geographic, this has been brought on by record droughts, a symptom of climate change. Not only that, but this report from 2007 shows that Cape Town officials were warned more than a decade ago about the potential for water shortages down the road.
Cape Town is the first of potentially many similar situations around the world. Mexico City is already hard-pressed to supply water to its 21 million residents, and Sao Paolo, Jakarta, and Melbourne are all likely to experience this issue in the near future. In Jakarta, another city experiencing drought, groundwater is being consumed at such a rate that the entire city is sinking, which will necessitate a sea wall straight out of a sci-fi dystopia to protect the city.
Climate change leads to the exacerbation of natural events like droughts, so these extreme weather events will only continue.
As the reality of climate change hits the world head-on, the United States finds itself as the only country in the world not party to the Paris climate Agreement, after Syria and Nicaragua signed on. Nicaragua had been skeptical because they believed the agreement did not go far enough, and Syria has been embroiled in a civil war for over six years and has had more pressing concerns. The United States is the only nation to have been a member and withdrawn.
While one can debate the actual merits of the Paris Agreement, the symbolic nature of the United States standing in solitary opposition to the rest of the world on this issue is striking. It hasn’t always been like this, though.
When considering the denial of climate change science, the Republican party often springs to mind. However, we don’t have to go very far back to see some surprising positions taken by Republicans on this issue.
Here is a video from just 2008, when presidential candidate John McCain touted the importance of fighting against climate change. In 1988, George H.W. Bush pledged to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” At this time, favoring cap and trade, a system to restrict the amount of carbon emissions from individual companies, was a mainstream Republican position to hold.
The Republican party of today is a far cry from this. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, which deals with matters of environmental regulation among others, is chaired by John Barrasso (R-WY), who replaced Jim Inhofe (R-OK). Both are staunch deniers of climate change. Inhofe achieved infamy with this bizarre moment where he presents a snowball to Congress as evidence against climate change.
These two are not alone. Rick Perry now heads the Environmental Protection Agency, an organization which he vowed to abolish in a past presidential run. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader respectively, both have expressed doubts over the government’s ability to combat climate change. And of course, President Trump himself has referred to climate change as a “hoax” and was a main champion of the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.
Perhaps more worryingly, the Democrats are not exactly progressive lions on this issue either. Rick Perry was confirmed to the position of Secretary of Energy by a 62-37 vote, necessitating a large amount of Democratic support. Representative Joe Kennedy gave only a passing reference to environmental protection in his response to President Trump’s first State of the Union address. He failed to mention sea level rise, global warming, or greenhouse gas emissions in his speech. Hillary Clinton, 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, has supported fracking around the world and has downplayed the concerns of environmentalists.
It seems that there is a nationwide problem when it comes to getting serious about climate change. One possible explanation is the increased prevalence of oil and gas money in politics over the last few decades. However, the overwhelming majority of this money goes to Republican campaigns, and does not help explain the lack of Democratic action on this front.
The Democratic party may be experiencing another symptom of its overall stagnation since the election of Barack Obama. As we discussed last year on Panorama, the party has become arrogant and sluggish regarding issues like health care, education, and so on, losing over 1000 seats to Republicans around the country since Obama’s election, and losing the presidency to Donald Trump. Positive action on climate change offers a way for the party to be re-energized and re-focused.
Whatever is preventing the United States government from taking action, it is vital that it be addressed sooner rather than later, because climate change is no longer a shadowy, far away threat. Its effects have arrived in full force, and will only get worse.
Feature Image: The Theewaterskloof reservoir—the main water supply of Cape Town, South Africa—on January 23, 2018 is at 12.3 percent of capacity. Image Credit: AP Photo