It’s hard to keep up with the crazed weather. As I write, a heat wave has killed over 50 people in the Midwest and South, with temperatures reaching 112 degrees in Evening Shade,
This surge of weird weather offers a powerful warning. Placed in context, its lessons could also help us overcome the denial that’s prevented the
A few years ago, global warming felt remote to most Americans. Although they heard it debated, it didn’t seem real. The media gave “equal time” to deniers and the most respected scientists. Now 84% of Americans view human activity as at least contributing to global climate change, and 70% demand greater government action. Responses have shifted in the wake of Katrina and the succession of local disasters; Gore’s Inconvenient Truth; the international IPCC report and similar impeccably credentialed scientific studies; and the start of serious media coverage, from Parade and the AARP magazine to Vogue. Add the impact of so many ordinary citizens speaking out, and Americans are starting to link the disasters they’re seeing around them with what’s happening to the planet.
When people’s communities are hit with exceptional floods, droughts, tornadoes, heat waves, or runaway wildfires, or they see these events on TV, even conservatives who would have once treated them as random “acts of God” start recognizing their deeper roots in the patterns of human action. In a May 2006 poll of
So our national frame on the weather is beginning to shift. Each new “natural disaster” now reinforces the sense that just maybe not all these disasters are so natural after all. And if we fail to seriously address their roots, similar ones or worse will dominate our future.
Of course global climate change doesn’t cause every extreme weather event. And not all our fellow citizens are quite ready to act on the full enormity of the climate crisis, still resisting much of what needs to be done, such as increasing gas taxes. But most Americans want someone to do something, even if they’re ambivalent about paying the costs. The more our warnings resonate with what people see around them, the more they can draw broader links, and the more the Exxon-funded denials ring hollow.
This situation expands political possibilities. While memory of this summer of disasters is still fresh, why not begin now to make a major issue of the rabid global climate change denial of Senators like
If the opponents of these officials can really tie them to their words, and keep asking why they’d rather stick up for Exxon than act on this ultimate threat to our common security, who knows how the election could turn? That’s particularly true given broader discontent over
Even with our existing Congress, the more the temperature keeps soaring and the rainstorms keep pounding, the more political leverage we have. The timidity of elected leaders who’ve acknowledged the crisis but done little to address it has been nearly as much a barrier as the blindness of those who deny it. So when the weather begins hitting home it gives us a chance to insist our elected officials actually lead.
They have this chance now with a renewed version of a bill that would have reversed oil company tax breaks to pay for $32 billion of incentives for renewable energy production. Given the magnitude of the crisis, that’s still far too modest an investment, but it would help. This past June, the Senate leadership dropped the legislation when they fell three votes short of overcoming a threatened filibuster; they also dropped a companion bill requiring all
So what do they do about the filibuster? They need to call the bluff of the obstructionists. They have one of the necessary three votes with the return of South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson from his brain injury. Barbara Boxer, who was attending the birth of a grandchild, gives them another. As they need only one more vote, and didn’t have the support of ostensible global climate change leaders like John McCain, who opposed rescinding the tax breaks for oil companies, they can begin by denying the opponents the power simply to table the bill by threatening endless debate.
Imagine if opponents filibustered, and instead of just letting them log in and register their vote, the Senate leadership forced them to defend and keep defending their position for the duration of the debate. Suppose they didn’t just do it for a single day or two, as with the
After a season of caving until Congressional ratings are now below those of Bush, Democratic leaders in charge of bringing legislation to the Senate floor should welcome a filibuster, not fear it. So should their handful of Republican allies, who want to pull their party back to the “reality-based community.” What a chance finally to address core issues, beginning with the costs of doing nothing on climate change. Supporters could discuss the disasters in their own home states and in the states of the legislation’s opponents. They could talk of the 200,000 Katrina exiles still dispossessed from their homes. They could describe melting polar icecaps and the potential for a world of climate refugees. They could highlight the value of actually building an American renewable energy industry and moving down a sustainable path. The longer the debate dominated the headlines, the more they could make clear what’s actually at stake.
This may not happen on its own. It will likely take sustained citizen pressure. But the floods and droughts signal a world of catastrophe that we’ve been moving toward, mostly unknowingly, our entire lives. With the scientific consensus on global climate change nearly universal, innocence and ignorance are no longer an excuse. We have an opportunity both to talk about the profound recklessness of our current path and to invest in alternatives that can avert the worst disasters. If we’re gong to change
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear, named the #3 political book of 2004 by the History Channel and the American Book Association. His previous books include Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See www.paulloeb.org To receive his monthly articles, email [email protected] with the subject line: subscribe paulloeb-articles