Toxic Denial of Climate Change Reality as Planet Hangs in the Balance

Science Is Settled — Politics Blocks Meaningful Action

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By J.J. Goldberg

Published February 09, 2014, issue of February 14, 2014.
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Environmentalists sometimes accuse conservatives of turning a blind eye to the extreme weather battering the country lately, because of disagreements over global warming.

That’s unfair. Despite political squabbling, some bold initiatives are emerging. On February 1, seeking to end the crippling drought that’s produced federal disaster areas in 11 Western states, faith leaders from across the religious spectrum, including imams, rabbis and Buddhist priests, met in a Mormon church outside Reno, Nevada, and prayed for rain. Like I said, bold action.

The following day, the Utah Farm Bureau Federation called for public fasting and prayer for rain. “We decided to go to the guy upstairs,” Utah dairy farmer Ron Gibson told the Deseret News.

That might sound like a long shot, but you never know. On January 11, Morocco’s King Mohammed V asked his country’s Jewish community to help fight drought by praying for rain, a day after the nation’s mosques did so. On January 17, MoroccoWorldNews.com reported thundershowers across the country’s south.

In Israel, suffering its driest winter on record, the country’s chief rabbis issued a call December 4 for daily recital of the traditional Simhat Torah prayer for rain. A week later the country was brought to a standstill by the heaviest snowstorm in at least a half-century. The chief rabbis quickly told the public to stop praying for rain and commence prayers of thanksgiving.

The drought promptly returned, but still.

Prayers aren’t the right’s only response. House Republicans introduced an emergency bill February 4 to suspend environmental regulations in California in order to divert water from the protected Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the agriculturally and politically crucial Central Valley. The bill is opposed by California Democrats and will likely die in the Senate. Republicans are frustrated.

“If you don’t like the bill we send, then tell us what you do support,” House majority whip Kevin McCarthy, from Bakersfield in the Central Valley, told a February 4 press conference.

Actually, that’s easy. There are reasons for the drought. Democrats want to fix them. Republicans don’t.

Bakersfield, Tel Aviv and Casablanca have something in common that helps explain the shared drought. They all sit on the west coast of a major continental land mass, all at roughly the same latitude, all in what’s called a Mediterranean climate zone.

And lately, they’re all on the wrong side of that pesky bulge in the Polar Jet Stream that’s wreaking havoc across the northern hemisphere, bringing frigid temperatures to most of the United States, weeks of monster rain and flooding in Britain and historic snowstorms across central Asia from Iran to Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan.

The cause, of course, is warming air above the de-iced Arctic Ocean. The warmer air weakens the Jet Stream, that high-pressure air current that speeds around the globe near the Arctic Circle, separating the cold air up there from the temperate air down here. Weakened, the Jet Stream wobbles. The result is the upside-down bell curve seen lately on American weather maps, running from the Yukon down toward the Gulf of Mexico and back up to Greenland. Inside the curve is the polar vortex — frigid air that belongs over the Arctic, but follows the bulging Jet Stream southward.

Less noticed is what happens west of the curve. Wet winds off the Pacific, normally bringing winter rain and snow to California and the Sierras, bump into that line of high pressure planted there like a brick wall. Unable to reach California, the winds ricochet north toward Alaska, which is having a balmy, spring-like winter while Atlanta is paralyzed by snow.

Something similar is happening over Europe and the Mediterranean, blocking Israel’s winter rains behind a wall of high pressure.

None of this is controversial, at least from a scientific viewpoint. Climate scientists have been predicting the current troubles, including drought, freezing and superstorms, for two decades. The one part they didn’t anticipate was how rapidly it would happen. They thought we’d have another century or so to prepare.

Instead, the crisis is now. Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer — the insurer of insurance firms — reports that extreme weather linked to climate change cost the global insurance industry $125 billion last year alone. Over the next few decades the projected economic cost of reducing fossil fuel use, the skeptics’ main argument against action, will be dwarfed by the actual costs of repairing storm damage and preparing infrastructure to survive what’s ahead. And that’s not counting the human costs of famine, dislocation and worse.

And yet despite the overwhelming evidence, skepticism continues and grows. A survey released in January by Yale and George Mason Universities found a 7% rise among Americans who say they don’t believe in global warming.

Conservative skeptics point to seeming anomalies, including the so-called warming hiatus of the past decade, last year’s reduced hurricane activity and last summer’s increase in Arctic ice (as though any science is free of unanswered questions), to claim the whole thing is a myth — or worse, a fraud cooked up by a conspiracy of scientists.

If so, it’s a strange sort of conspiracy. A recent study found that of 2,258 peer-reviewed scientific papers published by 9,136 authors from November 2012 to December 2013, exactly one questioned human-caused climate change.

Exactly what fuels the skepticism isn’t clear. Liberals blame heavy PR spending by fossil fuel industry interests, combined with rising anti-science sentiment on the religious right. That’s part of it. But another big factor is the right-wing tendency to identify climate science with squishy liberal environmentalism. Given the skyrocketing hostility on the right toward any form of liberalism in the age of Obama, the result is a toxic rejection of evidence at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher.

To see how toxic, consider climate policy in Israel. The environmental affairs ministry has been partnering with the Technion Institute to draw up national preparedness plans for the coming decades, originally with government blessing. In the past year or so, however, the effort has failed to win government attention, much less budgets. Likud politicians regularly deride the very idea of climate change, citing Fox News and Republican allies in Washington. Columnists in the staunchly pro-Likud daily Israel Hayom tie global warming to anti-Israel liberal “political correctness.” It has nothing to do with religious fundamentalism or industry money, and everything to do with choosing sides in a culture war.

The global scientific consensus is increasingly bleak. A report by the U.N.-linked Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, due out next summer but leaked to Reuters in December, says that at the current pace of change, the world community has 15 years to make substantial cuts in carbon emissions, before the processes now underway — droughts, extreme weather, collapse of agricultural breadbaskets like California — make the planet unlivable within a few generations.

After that, the report says, the only hope will be the emergence of some as-yet unimagined technology that sucks carbon out of the atmosphere. Then again, there’s always prayer.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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