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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Last month, a torrential rainstorm dumped 22 inches of water on the Florida panhandle and Alabama coast in 24 hours — flooding houses, stranding residents, washing out roadways. The lucky were plucked from rooftops by helicopters or rescued in boats, but some perished in the high water.

Meanwhile, California is experiencing the third year of an extreme drought that has bankrupted farmers and pitted agricultural regions against big cities. Climatologists say this is the driest period in the state’s recorded weather history, and its effects may become much more severe.

Isolated events? Mother Nature’s caprice at work? Nope. According to scientists, those are manmade disasters, weather phenomena created (or at least worsened) by human-induced climate change.

Last week’s National Climate Assessment — a report prepared by a scientific panel — lays out the effects of climate change throughout the country. The report found increases in heat waves, drought, torrential rains and flooding of the sort seen with Hurricane Sandy.

You might think the report would have scared the nation’s political class into immediate action. But you’d be wrong. While President Obama used the news to try to whip up support for legislation to combat greenhouse gases, Republicans greeted it with their usual flat-earth denial. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, derided the president for emphasizing the report’s conclusions and criticized Obama’s “war on coal.”

So this is a manmade disaster worsened by another: denial, hubris and ignorance rolled into a ball and frosted with petty partisanship. Though the planet is already hotter, the worst might be mitigated if the world’s big carbon emitters (the United States is second to China) made changes now. Unfortunately for every living thing, that seems unlikely.

This is the great moral crisis of our time, the overriding problem that dwarfs all others. After all, we can hardly expect to solve war, terrorism, hunger, the slave trade and assorted other ills if climate change threatens our very survival. Why is it that we fail to act?

Polls show that Americans tend to be less concerned about climate change than citizens of other wealthy nations. About 40 percent of Americans say that climate change is a significant problem, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. That contrasts with more than 50 percent of Australians, Canadians, French and Germans, more than 60 percent of Italians and Spaniards, and more than 70 percent of Japanese, according to The New York Times.