Water, water everywhere.
Here on the nation’s Gulf Coast, where I live, we’ve got precipitation to spare — severe thunderstorms, overwhelmed sewer systems, and flash floods. It’s hard to remember I’m not living in a land with regularly scheduled monsoons.
Meanwhile, the great state of California is desperately dry as it endures the fourth year of a drought that has already burned through every historical record. It’s been 1,200 years, according to a recent study, since the state has experienced anything like this.
As different as the manifestations are, though, both regions are likely grappling with the effects of climate change. As the Earth warms, droughts will become more frequent and more severe, leading to devastating fires, water shortages and, in some areas, agricultural collapse, according to climate scientists.
At the same time (and this befuddles the layperson), a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so areas that tend toward rain will have more of it, leading to more floods. There may also be more snowfall in colder climes, so don’t let a blizzard or two fool you.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2014 was the hottest year on record, with continents and oceans warmer than any year since 1880. And despite a bitterly cold winter in the Northeast and Midwest, 2015 is vying to best that. January, February, and March were the warmest on record for the planet, scientists say. Climate change is real.
Jerry Brown, California’s Democratic governor, knows that. He is living through its havoc and trying to meet it squarely. After enacting rigid new regulations about water use weeks ago, he has just issued new rules on carbon emissions — even though his state already had pretty tough requirements. Good for him.
In a speech, Brown said he wants California to stand out as an example for how to deal with global warming. “It’s a real test. Not just for California, not just for America, but for the world. Can we rise above the parochialisms, the ethnocentric perspectives, the immediacy of I-want-I-want-I-need, to a vision, a way of life, that is sustainable?”
President Obama is also doing what he can. He has called for increased fuel efficiency for vehicles; cars and light-duty trucks should be getting the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon by model year 2025. And, in a more ambitious move, the Environmental Protection Agency has set new rules for power plants, requiring them to limit the amount of carbon dioxide they dump into the atmosphere.
But those commonsense measures have met fierce resistance, not only from industries and the billionaires who own them (think the Koch brothers), but also from their lap dogs in the Republican Party. Several GOP state attorneys general — in apparent collusion with energy companies — have sued the EPA to prevent the regulations from taking effect. “Never before have attorneys general joined on this scale with corporate interests to challenge Washington and file lawsuits in federal court,” according to The New York Times.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), for his part, has urged states to refuse to cooperate in setting targets to limit emissions from power plants. In other words, he has — shades of the Old South — advised them to rebel against federal authority.
(In April, one of his state’s largest newspapers, The Lexington Herald-Leader, printed a powerful editorial rebuking him for that stance. “Mitch McConnell and others who are trying to obstruct climate protections will be regarded one day in the same way we think of 19th-century apologists for human slavery: How could economic interests blind them to the immorality of their position?”)
While the scientific consensus on climate change — that human activity is causing it — grows stronger with each week’s evidence, so does Republican resistance to measures to combat it. Though conservatives once held science in high esteem, they have abandoned it for the siren call of their monied backers.
California’s governor has called this era a “test,” a challenging moment in which we are called to rise above greed, partisanship, and selfish convenience. So far, we’re not doing so well.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at [email protected]