How Politics is Keeping Us from Fighting Climate Change

Over the course of the past several months, four hurricanes have ravaged the United States. The first, Hurricane Harvey, made landfall in August, destroying miles of property in Texas. The second, Hurricane Irma, hit the southernmost tip of Florida on September 10th, leaving massive floods and dozens of bodies in its wake. The third, and perhaps the most destructive, Hurricane Maria, destroyed much of Puerto Rico, with the U.S. island still reeling from its effects six weeks later. The fourth, Hurricane Nate, though small in comparison to the ones preceding it, left enough of a mark that homeowners are still picking up the pieces. Add to this list the raging fires that have been scorching Los Angeles and it is undeniable that we have entered an unprecedented change in climate that will only worsen over time.

It is also clear that if we continue to rely on fossil fuels as our main source of energy, hurricanes like Harvey and Irma will become the new normal. In a Washington Post op-ed last September, contributing writers, Michael E. Mann, a professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University, Susan J. Hassol, the director of Climate Communication LLC, and Thomas C. Peterson, president of the Commission for Climatology of the World Meteorological Organization, said that the strength of hurricanes is only getting stronger because of global warming.  It is no accident that over the past two years, the world has witnessed some of the most intense hurricanes in the Pacific and Atlantic hemispheres, mostly caused by the energy of warm ocean waters.  According to these experts (and others), the ocean is warming because of the human caused build-up of heat-trapping gases, made by the burning of coal, oil, and gas.“We also know that warmer air holds more moisture,” they wrote, “and the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere has increased because of human-induced global warming. We’ve measured this increase, and it has been unequivocally attributed to human-caused warming. That extra moisture causes heavier rainfall, which has also been observed and attributed to our influence on climate. We know that rainfall rates in hurricanes are expected to increase in a warmer world, and now we’re living that reality.”

And yet, although the nation’s leading scientists are pointing the finger at climate change for the increase in erratic weather, skeptics remain unconvinced.  They believe that climate change is a myth.  And unfortunately for us all, among the most vehement of deniers are working in the current White House. Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, President Donald Trump refuses to admit that climate change is real. When Joel Clement, the former director of the Office of Policy Analysis at the U.S. Interior Department, resigned from his position, he felt he was retaliated against by the Trump administration for speaking out about the dangers climate change poses to Alaska communities. The villages of Alaska, he said, like Kivalina and Shaktoolik, are close to melting into the Arctic Ocean, and permafrost melts and protective sea ice is receding (Clement). In raising these concerns with officials from the White House, his speaking out caused discomfort among the administration, leading to his reassignment from the interior.

While elected Alaskan officials are aware of the risks that climate change presents, our president and his administration seem unwilling to recognize the warning signs.  In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Scott Pruitt, the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency (and a notorious climate change denier), criticized the media and the scientists who suggested that the explanation for the storm surges, flooding, and extreme rainfall could be found in climate science.  This skepticism is not new:  when Mr. Pruitt was the attorney general in Oklahoma, he tried to block efforts to curb carbon emissions.  Now, he has claimed that attempts to explain the severity of the weather are “misplaced,” and he has suggested that journalists are using climate science for “opportunistic” reasons.  Scott Pruitt has close ties to the fossil fuel industry, and as a result, he has spent a career fighting against the EPA, using his position to battle against scientific facts relating to climate change. And now that he’s the head of the EPA, he continues to wage war on science, a viewpoint that resonates with conservative voters:  according to an October 2016 survey from the Pew Research Center, only 16% of conservative Republicans believe human behavior plays a major role in climate change, and only 15% believe climate scientists offer trustworthy information about the causes of climate change.

But this issue should be beyond politics.  The dangers of denying climate change and global warming are great, and the dangers of the government denying climate change are even greater. With 2014, 2015, and 2016 the hottest years on record in modern recorded history (and contrary to what you may see on some climate denier websites, this is NOT a hoax; some facts can be found here: https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/hottest-year-on-record/, and the earth experiencing high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the first time in over four million years, we’re more aware than ever that the man-made damage caused by fossil fuels has contributed to the change in the environment. “In 2016,” wrote Damian Carrington of The Guardian, “global warming delivered scorching temperatures around the world. The resulting extreme weather means the impacts of climate change on people are coming sooner and with more ferocity than expected, according to scientists.”

Fortunately, we at Lesley are making a good effort to combat climate change.  From what I’ve seen, there are environmentally-friendly utensils, cups, and lids; recycling bins; eco-friendly restrooms; a campaign to ensure that lights stay off when rooms aren’t in use; water filling stations all around campus; and composting stations.  Things can always be improved, but Lesley faculty, staff, and students are doing their part.

I only wish the same were true about our government.  It is important that we address the reality of climate change, and think of ways to reverse the damage that has already been done. And with mounting evidence proving that human activity has contributed to the rise in the earth’s temperature, it’s important for the president and his administration to heed the warnings of scientists, and acknowledge that climate change is a real danger, with potentially fatal consequences.

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