On March 3, addressing a joint meeting of Congress, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the emerging nuclear agreement with Iran to be scrapped and replaced with “a much better deal.”
Many things have been said for and against the prime minister’s plea, some convincing, some less so. But the most decisive reply came across the Capitol five days earlier, on February 26, when Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma threw a snowball on the Senate floor.
Inhofe thought he was debunking global warming. “Because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record,” he said, “I ask the chair, do you know what this is?”
After Inhofe was done, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island took the floor to explain how global warming produces extreme cold. It’s not very complicated.
It has to do with the air above the Arctic. There’s a spinning mass of very cold air that sits above the top of the world like a giant yarmulke. It’s called the polar vortex. Ringing the globe just south of it, like a headband, is a warmer, faster current called the jet stream. The difference in temperature and air pressure between the vortex and the jet stream acts like a security barrier, keeping the cold air in its place atop the Arctic.
Now, it so happens that the polar regions are warming about twice as fast as the rest of the planet. This narrows the difference in temperature between the polar air and the jet stream. As a result, the jet stream weakens, the vortex begins to wobble and amoeba-like bulges of freezing cold air are sent looping southward over North America for weeks at a time. Thus the warming of the planet makes the winter storms east of the Rockies more extreme and more destructive. Just ask the people of Boston.
The average American citizen may be forgiven for not understanding how this works. But James Inhofe isn’t just any citizen. He is the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. He’s paid by the American taxpayer to create and oversee policies for managing our treatment of the planet — and the planet’s treatment of us. He took the job willingly. He even swore — before God, no less — to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office.”
Let’s be clear. Inhofe isn’t obliged to believe what other people tell him, however many degrees they have. But he does have a duty to understand what they’re saying, so he can explain how and why he disagrees. If he’s going to make decisions that might endanger lives and cost Americans billions of dollars in property damage and lost work, he owes us an explanation of how he reached his decisions.
Tossing a snowball shows the world that he hasn’t made the least attempt to understand the things he’s sworn to manage. It’s nothing less than contempt for the public, and for Congress.
That Inhofe doesn’t understand the most basic facts about the environment whose protection he’s sworn to oversee is an embarrassment. That his fellow Republicans put him in charge of the Senate committee responsible for the environment and allow this behavior to continue is a national disgrace.
Let’s take this one step further. The warming of the planet is regarded around the world as a crisis of the first order for the future of humanity. Governments have been working together for two decades to seek ways of changing the human activity that drives the process. But America is unable to participate fully, much less play the leadership role that America must play.
No, we put our decisions in the hands of people like James Inhofe who choose not to understand the issues they’re responsible for. It cripples us. And it cripples the world. America is the essential nation, as Republicans never tire of telling us. If we don’t lead, things don’t happen.
The world notices what we do. Diplomats in Europe and Asia charged with maintaining their countries’ relations with America tear their hair in frustration. When we choose to be led by buffoons like Inhofe, we become little better than a rogue nation.
What does this have to do with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his appeal to stop Iran? Only this: The prime minister wants to end the current negotiating process and impose new, harsher sanctions. Even if he could convince America to do that — and he alienated more Americans than he convinced during his latest visit — America couldn’t do it alone. When America imposes sanctions on her own, Iran simply runs to Russia and China to supply the things that America won’t.
Congress began imposing sanctions on Iran in 1996, but they didn’t change Iran’s behavior. America stood alone and tall and Iran raced toward the bomb. It wasn’t until President Obama brought the Russians and Chinese on board that the sanctions began to bite. Only then did Iran come to the table, cut back its nuclear work and begin to deal.
The lesson? When you ally yourself with this Republican Congress against the president, you’re joining forces with James Inhofe and his fellow clowns against the person who can actually help.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).