‘Nothing’ Is A Bad Answer To The Question Of Climate Change

Liz Cheney, board member, Keep America Safe, addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2010. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
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With the White House on one end and lunch with Liz Cheney on the other, we got a vivid illustration this week of why climate change is such a hard problem to solve.

Yesterday, President Obama announced a set of new projects all relating to climate change.

Unlike the carbon-emissions rules announced in June, these are primarily mitigation initiatives. As Coral Davenport reports, they are aimed at

“guarding the electricity supply; improving local planning for flooding, coastal erosion and storm surges; and better predicting landslide risks as sea levels rise and storms and droughts intensify.”

These are projects to manage the effects of climate change, rather than prevent it. Sadly, we’ll have to do a lot of this kind of thing one way or another, given the extent to which climate change is already happening — and it’s become increasingly important as D.C. remains unable to do anything bigger to reduce the risk.

And the risk isn’t getting any smaller.

For the third month in a row, scientists have tracked more than 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the air, its highest level throughout recorded history, and a level scientists associate with dangerous climate change.

This is not a centuries-away problem. This is not even a children’s-children’s-children’s problem. This is a near-term problem that points to future catastrophe.

Across the world, including the far north of Alaska, scientists are racing to figure out exactly how soon, and how severe, that catastrophe will be.

Unfortunately, we can’t even talk about policy to manage the problem because so much of the political system has decided that we can’t acknowledge it.

One of the most common things you’ll hear from Republican politicians when you ask them about any climate-related issue is “I’m not a scientist.” It’s a handy dodge that is meant to evade an awkward conversation: if you admit anything related to climate change, you’ll be conceding the idea that the problem exists, and that annoys both the Fox-News-informed GOP base and the politically potent fossil fuel industry.

(And yes, this is an extremely powerful lobby. Just this week coal interests successfully drove an Alabama state utility regulator — a conservative Republican! — out of office for potentially threatening their bottom line.)

So they’re committed to “I’m not a scientist” as the answer to any question about the climate, even ones that, like the Obama Administration’s initiatives today, are more about dealing with the consequences than preventing them.

A preview of future sea level rise is already trickling into Miami Beach, and even if, as Michael Grunwald says, it’s just a coughing canary, not a dead one, it’s still a reminder that climate change is going to come with disruptions and consequences, ones that we are going to have to figure out a way to manage, starting with people in low-lying coastal states.

A group of scientists in Florida want to talk to their governor, Rick Scott, about climate change. Their message: he may not be a scientist, but he should try listening to some:

“You should have a detailed understanding of the specific climate change impacts already affecting Florida to help you formulate the optimal plans for mitigating future impacts, while simultaneously preparing Florida’s communities and businesses for the changes already underway, and almost certain to accelerate in coming years.”

But Scott seems to be sticking with the party line, as is Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio.

in North Carolina, in response to studies showing catastrophic impacts on the Outer Banks in the decades to come, the state legislature adopted the policy of sticking its fingers in its ears and humming at top volume.

And in Washington, Sen. Mitch McConnell is threatening to derail the government-funding process over amendments to block Obama’s power-plant rules, as are House Republicans. This threat is different from their many previous attempts to shut down the government or throw a wrench into economic policy. Instead of grandstanding and hostage-taking in order to address an overblown deficit problem, they’re doing in order to prevent addressing a much more serious environmental problem.

The best summation of the state of Republican discourse of climate this week came in Mike Allen and Politico’s friendly promotional luncheon for the Cheney family. Asked what to do about climate change, Liz Cheney quickly replied.


(Another great summation of how D.C. thinks about climate change also comes from Politico: their monthly email newsletter “examining how energy policy issues are affecting the 2014 midterm elections” is literally sponsored by the oil-extraction industry.)

Liz Cheney actually contended that the EPA is “a much greater threat” than climate change will ever be.

Across the Pacific, we got an even more honest answer to the question of what we do about climate change from Rupert Murdoch, who used to care a great deal about it. Now he shrugs off the effects as something we’ll just have to put up with, and probably not that big a deal, really.

Writing at The Nation, Zoë Carpenter pinpoints what’s wrong with Murdoch’s blithe insistence that we can just deal with it:

“Most people in the world can’t afford the luxury of thinking about climate change as a simple real estate challenge. And rising sea levels are only one facet of the looming global crisis.”

In the decades to come, climate change will hit us hard. It will change where we live, how we feed ourselves, and how countries interact with each other. We need to get real about it.

It cannot be stated enough: dealing with climate change is going to involve some level of disruption, cost, lifestyle changes and government action. But the more we do, earlier, to both minimize the changes that we’ll see and prepare for them, the smaller that cost will be.

Unless, of course, we want to assume that the market will evacuate Nags Head, Norfolk and Miami Beach for us, sometime during the lives of people alive today, we need to get going. We need strategies to treat the symptoms of climate change, and we need strategies to treat the disease.

What we’re getting from too many interests in the political system is “no, we can’t do that.”

Seth D. Michaels is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. He’s on Twitter as@sethdmichaels.

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