With the effects of climate change creeping up faster and stronger than previously thought, how long can climate change deniers — especially those in the political arena — hold their position?
Half of the United States is suffering through drought conditions — including all of California, which saw huge swathes of the San Diego area swept by raging wildfires this month. In the Midwest, major rainstorms and tornadoes inundated the Mississippi floodplain for days, causing millions of dollars in damage. In Baltimore, hurricane-intensity rain contributed to the collapse of a city street.
It is the consensus of the scientific community that the Earth is sick. According to the National Climate Assessment, the world is currently experiencing the effects of climate change, or the shifting of the planet’s climate zones due to environmental factors.
Carbon reflects heat, preventing infrared radiation from the sun from escaping back into space. With more than 400 parts per million of carbon-bearing gases in the air and with more than 80,000 chemicals having been released by man into the atmosphere, the mean temperature in the United States has risen between 1.3 and 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since the end of the 19th century. It will likely rise another 2 to 4 degrees in the next 20 years, according to the report.
This represents a major financial problem. As illustrated by data from the National Climatic Data Center, the number of “billion-dollar disasters” — weather events that caused over $1 billion in real and personal property damage — spiked after 2004. There were seven “billion-dollar disasters” in 2013 and 11 in 2012, compared to two in 2001 and just one in 2000.
During a February hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, the Department of Homeland Security laid out what should be expected in the future. “According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, future impacts of climate change project national economic losses on the order of $1.2 trillion through 2050,” said David Heyman, assistant secretary for policy for the DHS.
On denying climate change
In light of such potential financial peril for both individuals and businesses, it’s hard to see how taking precautions toward mitigating the current severe weather patterns could be a partisan issue.
Yet climate change denialism is alive and well. Besides public outbursts decrying climate change — such as “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak’s Twitter post last week calling global warming alarmists “unpatriotic racists knowingly misleading for their own ends” — many in the political arena have made clear their continuing opposition to the notion of global warming.
“I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” Sen. Marco Rubio said in an interview with ABC News earlier this month. “I think severe weather has been a fact of life on Earth since man started recording history.”
With climate change denial becoming a valid campaign plank among Republicans in this year’s midterm elections, it begs questions of how this posture will be perceived and if climate change denial still represents sound political judgment.
Consequences for “dragging your heels”
In April 2013, Democratic Illinois Governor Pat Quinn declared a state of emergency for the state after a major deluge swamped most of Chicago.
“After several days of rain, an overnight deluge overwhelmed Chicago’s underground labyrinth of aging sewers and giant tunnels Thursday, forcing a noxious mix of sewage and stormwater into local waterways and Lake Michigan,” the Chicago Tribune reported on April 19. The rainfall was so severe that many residents were forced to evacuate their homes, and the only reliable means of transportation for several days was a boat.
In response to this, Farmers Insurance — on behalf of itself and other insurance companies and affected customers — has filed a suit against the city of Chicago and municipalities throughout Cook County for their failure to properly prepare for such weather eventualities in light of foreknowledge that such climate change-empowered storms may be possible. Farmers alleges that the city knew that its drainage systems were inadequate to handle a major infusion of floodwater, but did nothing to alleviate the situation.
“During the past 40 years, climate change in Cook County has caused rains to be of greater volume, greater intensity and greater duration than pre-1970 rainfall history evidenced,” the class-action lawsuit alleges, citing Chicago’s 2008 Climate Action Plan, which acknowledges the link between climate change and increased rainfall.
Increasingly, scientists are moving away from seeing climate change as an escalation of unpredictable severe weather incidents, and toward seeing the change in climate as a predictable risk factor. Damage from climate change, many believe, can be minimized through proactive approaches, such as strengthening and expanding existing infrastructure, reducing greenhouse emissions, and encouraging green initiatives like a transition toward renewable energies and recycling.
However, for politicians tied to industries that are major atmospheric polluters — such as the oil industry — it is increasingly difficult and even politically dangerous to admit to the link between greenhouse emissions and the shifting climate.
The philosophy of denial
On Wednesday, 43 members of the House and Senate — all Democrats or Democrat-caucusing — rallied to push for more action to reduce carbon emissions. No one from Louisiana — a state with an economy that relies heavily on petroleum refining and shipping — was present. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, whose pro-energy posture puts her at odds with her fellow Democrats, has argued that despite the risks, continued oil production is important to America, while simultaneously encouraging the use of natural gas and the expansion of renewable energies.
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, a Republican, has framed the debate in terms of job losses.
“Thirty years ago liberals were using global cooling to push new radical regulations,” said Scalise, after the release of a recent United Nations report asserting that the effects of climate change have already set in. “Then they shifted their focus to global warming in an effort to prop up wave after wave of job-killing regulations that are leading to skyrocketing food and energy costs.”
Increasingly, many Republicans see climate change in economic terms — if the called-upon remedy would affect economic growth and the consequences of non-action would not immediately impact production, then climate change is not a recognizable threat.
Meanwhile, there are enough scientists on the fringe of the scientific community alleging that the rise in greenhouse gas emissions do not present an immediate threat and that the scientific models used by the scientific community to justify climate change are fundamentally flawed, so those seeking to justify their denial of climate change have apt sources to cite.
“This is not like, say, the 1930s, where we did not have any form of a social safety net,” Lincoln Mitchell, a human rights advisor to Columbia University, told MintPress News. “What a president can do in such a situation is to say, ‘Look, we have a problem — old people are starving. How can we solve this problem?’ With this, you can set up a clear policy that would address the issue at hand.”
“Climate change is not such a situation,” he continued. “With this, no one has the answer because we have came to this problem late. The train has left the station on this. There are no easy answers left and no one can have the right answer — the issue is too big.”
In terms of economic and ecological impacts, the effects of climate change are relatively minor in the short term and difficult to differentiate from normal climate fluctuations. However, the severity of the effects of climate change could escalate in a relatively short amount of time. In a recent report, the Union of Concerned Scientists forecast that many of the nation’s landmarks — including the Kennedy Space Center, Ellis Island, Jamestown Island and Cape Hatteras — may be lost under water by 2100 unless significant modifications are made to stem the effects of climate change.
Ultimately, comprehensive efforts to protect from climate change may not come until it is too late. This may not be the result of greedy corporations or uneducated voters or compromised politicians, though — it could simply be because the world is run by humans.
“Climate change was not solely caused by evil polluters, but by a species that, in large part, has for centuries been deeply committed to making, buying and selling things,” Mitchell wrote in a blog post for the Huffington Post. “For much of the time we did those things, nobody thought about long-term environmental impact.”