This month has been miserable in the city. Ever since the July 4th weekend, the east coast has been drifting in and out of sultry weather, never feeling more than a few hours respite from the swampy climate. In New York City, the average temperature for the month has been 5 degrees above normal. The humidity has been disgusting, the sun has been scorching, and subway platforms have literally felt like standing in front of an open oven.
In heat like that, waiting and waiting for the train to come, a person’s body screams at them to flee, to find a way out of the heat. It’s akin to a mild panic response. But there’s nowhere to go, the train is on the way, and it can’t be missed. One minute turns to two, two to five, five to ten and now a person’s eyes refuse to focus on anything, thoughts are just a jumble, senses are experiencing nothing but the now in excruciating fashion, and a person is bathing in perspiration.
Normally a place where weather does not reach, after extended periods of hot weather the tunnels cultivate their own hellish atmosphere that outpaces the worst days on the street. The heat will maintain its grip underground for weeks after things have calmed down up above.
It’s in all of this that news comes out of Washington that any new climate legislation before the midterms is not going to happen, and may not happen at all. If ever there were a worse moment for such news to be delivered, it’s during a heat wave. And such bad tidings harkens back to this past winter, when much of the same area suffering through this heat was blanketed with epic amounts of snow, and skeptical conservative legislators stood on the steps of the Capitol or before the podiums in its chambers, roundly denouncing global warming as a left-wing conspiracy. Record-breaking heat has not made them change their minds, but it has toned down the histrionics.
Senator James Inhofe, the most vocal of the global warming deniers in Congress, reiterated this week that the earth is nine years into a cooling cycle, despite mountains and mountains of evidence to the contrary. Worldwide, the nine years that Senator Inhofe cites have been the warmest ever recorded using instruments, i.e., thermometers. Senator Lindsey Graham, the black sheep of the Republican Party, who seems to delight in refusing to cower to the party line, and whose vote is necessary for any climate legislation to pass, said recently, “The science on global warming has changed.” The Republican Party loves using code words, and Graham’s statement, seemingly couched in reason, is nothing but code for dismissing global warming entirely.
Other conservatives, recognizing that the science behind global warming is solid, have instead shifted their arguments to say that while global warming is occurring, that does not mean it is a bad thing. Theirs is the only stance that is remotely defensible, as the unknowns about the future conditions of living on a warm planet are in flux. But these people tend to cite the possibilities for economic gain while ignoring the ecological disasters awaiting peoples in areas such as the Himalayas, where the receding glaciers threaten the water supplies of tens of millions, and the agricultural future of a huge swath of India, and in areas such as the Maldives, where rising ocean levels threaten to submerge the entire country. There is little in the way of speculation about what is going to happen in these areas and many others. We are seeing the effects now, before our very eyes, and there is no bright face that can be put on these facts.
What is horrifying about global warming isn’t just the possibilities for calamity that it holds for our futures. Rather, it’s also the effective and unremitting smokescreen that hucksters like Inhofe and his ilk use to deny proven science. Their actions fly in the face of the facts, both demonstrable with data, and those that we can see. The public interest is taking a huge, and perhaps devastating hit because a small number of powerful people are protecting an unsustainable status quo instead of planning for the future.
It’s disturbing that global warming has been pushed into the arena of partisan politics. Instead of a group effort to address a complex issue, global warming has been divided into the conservative and liberal camps of American politics, with the conservative camp being the most deluded and immune to reason and facts. So much so that while global warming is a profound geopolitical issue, one would not know that from watching American politics, which has treated the issue as local. The conservative opposition to global warming science is born directly from conservative ideology, where the concerns of the powerful few always trump the interests of society at large. It’s hardly surprising that an ideology that demonizes empathy would react so strongly when powerful interests feel threatened. It’s just par for the course.
But there is the greatest problem of all. There is always more than one side to a debate, regardless of fact. And when the outcome of the debate has the potential to shift vast amounts of capital away from vested interests, such as big oil and coal, long term goals find a fierce opponent in short term profitability.
We as a species have never been good at dealing with cross-generational problems. Global warming is really the first, in fact. Decisions made in ignorance decades ago are affecting the climate today. This generation does not have the excuse of ignorance. Instead, we have consciously made the decision that maintaining today’s status quo at the expense of the future’s is better than maintaining long term climate stability at the expense of today’s profit margins. Additionally, we, as a culture, have now invested centuries worth of experience and know-how into extracting fossil fuels from the earth. It is an efficient and cost-effective process. Because of this, it is unlikely that we will ever stop using fossil fuels as long as there are reserves to be tapped. Even if renewable and clean sources of energy become more cost-effective than fossil fuels, that very success will push prices of fossil fuels down, helping to maintain their attractiveness as a source of cheap energy. It’s a potentially vicious cycle.
So what are we to do? There is no easy answer to slowing or reversing global warming. Actually, there is an easy answer, we’ve just overcomplicated it with our unwillingness to accept change. And now we seem to be at the point where change is being thrust on us without any meaningful attempt to mitigate it. Decades from now, when global warming is in full throat, people will look back upon this as an era of fools. Men like James Inhofe will be demonized by history for their blindness, but no one will be blameless.