It is a testament to the political spin machine that an issue like climate change can be so polarizing. Unlike the debate of Creationism vs. Evolution, this is not an issue that can be decided by faith; unlike Roe v. Wade, it is not an issue that hinges on morals or feminism or the dictates of jurisdiction. Climate change, unlike these issues, is not subjective, not beholden to opinion or faith, and yet Congress continues to treat it as such – in particular, the Republican party. Why?
Since the 1970s, the U.S. Historical Climatology Network has recorded warmer winters in every state. Winters nationwide have exhibited warmer temperatures at a rate 4.5 times faster per decade than over the past 100 years. Though surface temperatures hit a peak in 1998 and have slowed since then, the world’s oceans continue to heat up. This has caused ice sheets at the Earth’s poles to enter a state of “irreversible retreat,” and western Antarctica is now melting.
According to NASA’s Eric Rignot, this circumstance is non-negotiable: “It’s passed the point of no return.”
In January, NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released their report on global temperatures since 1951. Both bodies found that, with the exception of 1998 (which was host to a record-breaking El Nino event), the ten hottest years on record have all occurred in the new millennium. Bear in mind, there have only been 14 years in the new millennium. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), 13 of those years have been hotter than anything they’ve recorded before.
What’s causing this increase in heat? Is it natural or is it man-made? For those who have stopped denying climate change but still cast doubt upon its causes, this is the point they continue to cling to, that the Earth is going through a natural cycle of climate change.
Ice cores taken from the East Antarctic dispute this claim.
By measuring the composition of air in ice that dates back over 650,000 years, scientists found that atmospheric carbon dioxide saturation ranged between 180 and 280 parts per million (ppm) in the late Quaternary Period. In the last 200 years (since the Industrial Revolution), the concentration of carbon dioxide has risen 40 percent to 400 ppm. That’s the highest it’s been in recorded human history.
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere and trap the heat of the sun. This is known as the greenhouse effect, sometimes called global warming. But in 2010, Thomas Friedman suggested we throw out the term global warming in favor of “global weirding,” because trapped heat will affect more than just the temperature.
“The weather will get weird,” he wrote. “[S]ome areas will get more precipitation than ever; others will become drier than ever.”
In January, the Polar Vortex struck the northwest United States and, despite the fact that the last thirteen years have been the hottest in recorded history, climate deniers seized the opportunity to proclaim the death of the “global warming debate.” Unfortunately, freak weather occurrences like the Polar Vortex are exactly what Friedman was talking about when he coined the term global weirding. I broke down the controversy in my article, “If Global Warming Is Real, Why Is It So Cold?”
The point is, the science is not debatable. Forty years ago, perhaps. But not twenty years ago.
In 1995, cap-and-trade reduced acid rain emissions by 3 million tons in that year alone. It was a carbon-management system put in motion by President George H.W. Bush, a staunch Republican who looked at the science and understood that sulfur dioxide emissions were poisoning the environment. It was bad for the Earth and bad for business, which is why he pushed for an improved Clean Air Act in 1990. The New York Times considers his amending the Act to be the highest achievement of his presidency.
Though the move was controversial amongst the more conservative members of Bush I’s party, environmentalism, at that time, was still a bipartisan issue. What’s more, nobody was trying to pick a fight with the science. More sulfur dioxide equaled more acid rain. To reduce acid rain, reduce the pollution. To reduce the pollution, improve the air. The facts were consulted, a policy was enacted.
But Republicans don’t agree. The most vocal of the GOP dispute climate change, dispute man’s effect on the environment, argue that renewable energy isn’t worth Americans’ time or money and, at times, even find themselves at legislative odds with the very states they represent.
In June, President Barack Obama proposed a landmark cut in carbon emissions and, despite experts saying that the reduction doesn’t go far enough, Republicans castigated the president for throwing American coal workers, the American economy and American business to the wolves.
This is not just a matter of Democrats and Republicans being the most polarized they’ve been in the last 150 years. This is something else.
The Roman consul Lucius Cassius had a famous saying: “Cui bono?”
Who benefits from Republicans burying their heads in the sand, even as ocean levels rise and the air fills with carbon? Who benefits from turning a scientific certainty into a political tug-of-war?
Filling Up the Republican Tank
Dr. Michael Mann, Professor of Meteorology at Penn State University, is not coy in his sentiments for the Republican agenda, nor in discussing where they take it from.
Dr. Mann has been on the forefront of the climate change debate for as long as the idea of a “debate” has been in vogue. He is an expert in climate science, one of the co-authors of the third assessment report for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and perhaps most famous for publishing the “hockey stick graph” in 1999, which shows consistent warming throughout the 20th century.
In his interview with Planet Experts, Dr. Mann detailed the hostility and death threats he received for simply presenting the data that greenhouse gas emissions were warming the atmosphere.
“Unfortunately,” says Mann, “at the base of this is the fact that a number of very well-heeled private interests – the Koch brothers in particular – have spent tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars poisoning – literally poisoning – our public discourse over climate change by funding professional climate change deniers, creating front groups and funding think tanks that exist to cast doubt on the science of climate change. Funded by the Koch brothers, or in many cases funded by their fossil fuel interests.”
The Koch brothers, Charles and David, are the heads of Koch Industries, the second-largest private company in America. They are two of Forbes’ richest men in the world (worth about $40 billion each) and their combined businesses and subsidiaries in oil and gas, polymers, fibers, consumer products, minerals, fertilizers, forestry and ranching generate an annual $115 billion in revenue. Charles Koch considers himself a libertarian and has made it his mission to free his several businesses from the oppressive regulation of government. For the sake of his fossil fuel interests, this has extended to founding anti-environmental groups and funding climate change skepticism.
Through their main political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), the Kochs spent $45 million in the 2010 mid-term elections. That year, David Koch personally attended the swearing-in ceremony of Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner. This year, Koch-backed organizations have already donated more than $25 million to Republican midterm campaigns.
Not only have the Koch brothers and other fossil fuel interests paid their way into Republican pockets, they also make it difficult for pro-environmental Republicans to get elected.
“One of the other things that they’ve done,” Mann continues, “is to challenge Republicans that come out and express a thoughtful view about climate change. Any Republican now who comes out and says they accept what the scientists have to say will almost certainly be targeted in the primary campaign – it’s what’s known as being ‘primaried’ out of their seat. One of the best examples of that is Bob Inglis, a Republican from South Carolina, who was primaried out of his congressional seat some years ago by a candidate heavily funded by the Koch brothers.”
Former Vice-President Al Gore has also pointed to the Koch brothers as the main antagonists to the climate cause. Prior to these billionaires’ seemingly limitless funding, both Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) were perfectly willing to admit to the science. In recent years, however, both men have backtracked on their belief in anthropogenic (man-made) climate change.
“It apparently no longer matters in Congress what health experts and scientists think,” said Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman. “All that seems to matter is what Koch Industries thinks…. It can be argued, however, that the Republican members of Congress in general are also wholly owned subsidiaries of Koch Industries.”
Last week, President Obama’s top science advisor, John Holdren, appeared before the Republican-led House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. The Committee was supposed to discuss Obama’s climate action plan and the EPA’s proposal to reduce nationwide carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. But the proceedings quickly devolved into Republicans questioning Holdren on climate science and then jeering at the answers he calmly supplied.
I encourage you to click the link above because the Committee’s disdain for Dr. Holdren, an alumnus of MIT and Stanford University, must be seen and heard to be believed. It raises the question, who is really paying attention to what politicians do in Washington?
It seems the height of absurdity that a committee of science, space and technology can be led by men such as Representative Larry Buchson (R-IN), who told Holdren that he could take the time to read scientific literature, but that would only lend credence to “climatologists whose careers depend on the climate changing to keep themselves publishing articles.”
“Yes, I could read that,” the Congressman told Holdren, “but I don’t believe it.”
As Jon Stewart, the host of The Daily Show, recently pointed out, Congressman Buchson’s top three campaign contributors are the coal giants Murray Energy and Peabody Energy, and, of course, the omnipresent Koch Industries.
Is it too simplistic to say that Republicans reject anthropogenic climate change because they’re paid to? Or is it too troubling to think that the men and women who draft the energy policy of America are doing so, not in the best long-term interests of Americans, but in the greediest short-term interests of a carbon-belching elite?
The truth is, deep down, all politicians are subject to the votes of their constituents, no matter how meager those constituents’ means. If climate change were an issue more Americans cared about, even the most skeptical politicians would have to act.
Republicans are the not the problem. The problem is a lack of education on the subject and a lack of exposure. This week, 400,000 people marched through the streets of New York in support of global climate initiatives and the mainstream media barely covered it.
Climate change exists, but the devil is in the simple detail that there is no controversy. As long as media outlets and Republicans and fossil fuel companies and Texas textbooks can pretend that there is, nothing will change.
No politician is required to tell the truth, but every time Americans vote in a climate skeptic, they are lying to themselves. More importantly, they’re lying to the generation of voters that will inherit America after them.