Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Saturday, December 10, 2016

The bone-rattling cold settling in over much of the country has given science skeptics a bit more fodder for their campaign of doubt and disinformation: Climate change is a hoax, they say. Didn’t you feel that pre-Thanksgiving freeze?

Their deliberate misunderstanding doesn’t alter the facts. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human-caused global warming is already changing our environment, with far-reaching consequences.

In March, the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a report — “What We Know” — that said “we face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes.”

An unexpected burst of cold weather can’t mitigate that. As climate scientist Marshall Shepherd, head of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program, often puts it, weather is akin to mood, but climate is akin to personality. And Mother Earth’s personality has soured as she is battered by warmer temperatures that melt the polar ice cap, kill off species and seed volatility in weather patterns.

That’s why President Obama’s focus on climate change may be the most important part of his legacy. There is no issue more crucial to the future of the United States — indeed, to the future of the planet — than ameliorating rising global temperatures.

Last week, Obama sealed a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping to limit carbon dioxide, which marks the first time that China, one of the world’s two biggest producers of greenhouse gases (with the United States), has made a specific commitment to limit emissions. Even if the Chinese fail to follow through on specific targets, the pledge its government has made is a significant step in the right direction.

But the Chinese aren’t the only laggards. Republicans have staked a claim to blasting the scientific evidence and denouncing any and all efforts to address climate change. While not all of them go so far as to call global warming a hoax, the vast majority of them claim that efforts to ameliorate it are too costly.

Already, GOP leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner have come out criticizing Obama’s deal with China, insisting that it will entail ghastly governmental regulations that kill jobs and penalize businesses. Boehner contends the agreement, in which the U.S. also agrees to cut emissions, is “the latest example of the president’s crusade against affordable, reliable energy that is already hurting jobs and squeezing middle-class families.” (Oddly, Boehner made no mention of the fact that gas prices are currently in free fall, which helps household budgets.)

That’s because the GOP is wholly owned by its wealthy patrons, many of whom run industries that emit greenhouse gases. Take the Koch brothers, who have become significant benefactors to the Republican Party. Privately held Koch Industries has energy production at its core, and its owners have spent untold millions to try to thwart regulations aimed at reducing emissions.

Indeed, the entire campaign to cast doubt on the scientific evidence about global warming has been fostered by industry, which has hired unscrupulous researchers, spread half-truths and spent big money to bend the will of Congress, as documented by historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt. It’s no wonder that so little has been done to confront the problem.

In the face of that sort of resistance, Obama has no choice but to accomplish as much as he can through executive orders. While Republicans appear ready to take him to court, the president has the power to act through the Environmental Protection Agency. The U.S. Supreme Court has already endorsed the view that the EPA has sweeping authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

Here’s more good news: That deceptive campaign to cast doubt on science seems to be losing out. Forty-four percent of Americans believe that human activity is driving climate change, according to an October poll by YouGov and The Huffington Post. And 53 percent want Congress to do something to address it, the poll said.

Younger voters are more likely than the older generation to view global warming as a pressing issue. And it’s no wonder: They will have to live with the consequences.

Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at [email protected]

AFP Photo/Frederic J. Brown

Want more political news and analysis? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!