Today you’re invited to join me in a thought experiment. Assume for a moment that you’re the sort of American voter who puts Israel’s safety and welfare first when deciding how to vote. Let’s go further and assume that you don’t believe the American government should be dictating Israel’s policies, but should project American power to deter Israel’s and America’s shared enemies. (If you already feel that way you can still join the experiment with the rest of us.)
Got it? Now, let’s take a hard look at America’s two political parties. Consider the Republican Party, where forthright devotion to Israel is a prerequisite for mounting a presidential candidacy. Then consider the Democratic Party, whose last national convention in 2012 erupted in shouting on the floor when the leadership forced through a platform amendment endorsing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Those aren’t random examples. Surveys over the last decade have shown a steadily widening gap between the two parties in their levels of support for Israel. The Pew Research Center in July 2014 found self-described Republicans sympathizing with Israel over the Palestinians by 77% to 6%, while Democrats’ numbers were 44% and 18%. The two parties had been fairly similar until just after 2000, when Republican support began rising steadily while Democrats remained stable. The parties are similarly split on military spending, defending allies, supporting the United Nations and similar issues. Democrats are moderately in favor of projecting American power around the world, but Republicans are much more so.
So if you’re worried about protecting Israel, it’s a no-brainer, right? Perhaps. But before we sign off on that, let’s continue our thought experiment.
Our next stop is Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., where House Republicans are in the process of choosing a new speaker. That’s the official who’s third in line to the presidency, responsible for making sure Congress produces a budget for the president to sign so that our government can function. As you’ve probably heard, the process has collapsed in chaos. The party that controls our national legislature can’t even control itself. It can’t decide whether it wants to govern or throw tantrums. The incumbent speaker, John Boehner, has been effectively chased out because he’s not willing to shut the government down as a political tactic. The operating premise of all politics — compromise — which is especially important in a divided government, has become such a poisoned concept that an important faction in Congress won’t even compromise with its own party leadership.
This may work itself out in the short term. But the basic structural problem won’t go away. For a host of reasons the Republicans are likely to remain in control (if that’s the right word) of Congress for the foreseeable future. And there’s no indication that their rightward drift toward uncompromising extremism is about to stop. America could be in for an extended period of government paralysis.
Will paralysis improve this country’s standing in the world? Will it enhance our ability to function as a superpower and defend our allies? You be the judge.
While we’re thinking about that, let’s proceed to the next stop on our tour: South Carolina. The state is reeling from the devastation left by unprecedented rainstorms and the worst flooding in its history. The storms have caused at least $1 billion in damage, destroyed hundreds of roads, breached a cascading series of more than 100 dams, knocked out drinkable water for tens of thousands and killed at least 19 people. Scientists warn that an individual weather event such as this can’t be definitively be attributed to global warming, though they note that incidents of extreme weather are expected to increase in number and intensity as the planet warms.
Simultaneously, a devastating Medicane — Mediterranean hurricane — struck the French Riviera, causing the region’s second-worst flooding in modern times (the worst was in 2010), leaving severe damage and killing at least 19 people. Scientists warn that an individual weather event such as this can’t be definitively attributed to global warming, though they note that incidents of extreme weather are expected to increase in number and intensity as the planet warms.
What the scientists mean is that the individual events in question might have occurred anyway. Storms happen. But the frequency, scale and scope of disaster are something new, and they’re pretty much just what you’d expect with the planet warming the way it’s been going. Last year, 2014, was the earth’s warmest year on record, and 2015 is on track to be even warmer. One result of a warmer planet is warmer oceans, leading to higher sea levels, because water expands as it warms. Warmer water also means increased evaporation. And warmer air is able to hold larger amounts of that moisture. The combined result is ever-heavier rainstorms and greater inland surges when storms whip up the waves. That’s what the scientists mean. But in their tone-deaf responses to reporters’ questions, starting with “can’t be definitively attributed,” the message they send the public is that the increased storm activity somehow isn’t connected to the changing climate. Thus in their quest for precision they spread ignorance and falsehood. It keeps getting worse, but we convince ourselves there’s nothing much going on. It won’t be so bad. Anyway, we have time. That’s wrong.
The signs are everywhere. Extreme, unusual, record-setting weather has been the new normal for a while, and each new round is worse than the last. This past July a monster tornado swept through the Canadian prairie provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the latest in a growing series of freak, once-in-a-century tornadoes that now come almost every year, with funnels measured in miles rather than feet.
Through much of July and August the Middle East suffered through an unprecedented heat wave that settled over the entire region for weeks, with temperatures reaching above 120 degrees for days at a time. Factoring in the heat index — the combination of surface temperature and humidity that tells you what the human body is actually experiencing — the feel-like temperature on July 30 in the Iranian city of Bandar Mahshahr reached 164 degrees, the second-highest ever recorded on earth. The heat index reached 156 degrees that day in parts of southern Iraq. You can set your oven to that temperature and cook a chicken.
Israel caught the worst of the heat wave in August, which was the country’s hottest month on record. The hottest single day in most parts of the country was August 16, with a heat index topping 150 degrees in some of the inland valleys. Arguably worse, though, was the freak dust storm, the worst in the country’s history, that blanketed Israel along with Lebanon and Syria as well as parts of Egypt and Cyprus for a week in early September. Dust storms in the region rarely last more than a day, and a storm at the end of the summer is unprecedented. Three people died from weather conditions in Israel this summer and hundreds were hospitalized. Once again, scientists were stumped.
If there’s a common denominator in these natural disasters, it’s that each one sets a new record for the worst ever, except when it’s an unprecedented first-ever. The days of predicting that carbon emissions will eventually warm the globe with likely calamitous impact are finished. We have arrived. The calamitous impacts are here.
None of those incidents, however, takes the prize for scariest recent climate event. That honor has to go to the surprisingly cold “blob” of ocean, several hundred square miles in area, discovered in the North Atlantic just south of Greenland this past summer. It apparently results from the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which annually sloughs off billions of tons of cold, fresh water and huge chunks of ice into the ocean. One chunk seen breaking off this August was the size of Manhattan and 1,000 feet thick.
The danger posed by this blob begins with the fact that it’s sitting right in the middle of the Gulf Stream, the channel of warm water that flows through the Atlantic from the Gulf of Mexico up the East Coast of the United States and over to Britain and the North Sea.
The Gulf Stream plays a critical role in supporting human civilization. It carries warm air along with it and creates mild, temperate climates along its route. It’s the reason that the British Isles, Scandinavia and the north coast of Europe enjoy livable, hospitable conditions conducive to year-round mass habitation, unlike other regions at the same latitude — that is, the same distance south of the North Pole — such as Siberia and the Canadian Yukon.
It’s been theorized for some time that the warming of the oceans, combined with reduced salinity as the Greenland melt adds billions of tons of fresh water, could result in a slowing or diversion of the Gulf Stream. This would eventually have a catastrophic impact on Europe’s future. The “blob” is the first concrete evidence.
So what does all this have to do with your vote and Israel’s security? Just this: the scope of our thought experiment is not just a year or two, but decades.
The nations of the world are engaged in a desperate race to slow the pace of global warming before the effects — monster storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, rising sea levels — become unstoppable and render large sections of the planet uninhabitable. It’s a global problem and requires a global solution, but getting there is a grueling process that involves countless conflicting interests and endless foot-dragging. There’s been progress. The upcoming global climate summit in Paris in December is expected to adopt a landmark agreement that will include binding cuts in the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the crisis. But as things stand now, the Paris pledges won’t be enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. Not even close.
It’s often said that the United States is the essential nation. We’re the world’s superpower. When we lead, the world advances. When we don’t, bad things get worse. In this case, we can’t lead, because the Republican Congress won’t adopt the sweeping measures needed for the United States to do its full share and take its place as the world leader in addressing this global crisis. It seems that if you’re a Republican, American leadership is only fun when we get to shoot people.
As if that’s not enough, the congressional Republicans aren’t limiting themselves to blocking federal action. They’re now taking their fight international. In early September an aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell began meeting with diplomats from other nations to warn that the GOP intends to block President Obama’s climate measures and will work to sabotage an international climate agreement.
Republicans like to tell themselves that their climate stance represents a serious slice of international scientific and public opinion. That’s not true. Not even conservative parties around the world buy into the Republican blindness. A new study by a Norwegian academic found that the Republican Party is the only conservative party in the developed world that rejects the scientific evidence of climate change caused by human activity.
So if you’re thinking of voting Republican because they say the right things about keeping Israelis safe over the next 15 years, think about those Israelis’ great-grandchildren. Our actions today will determine whether they inherit a startup nation or a wasteland.
Some folks might look at the current actions of the Republican Party and call it a useful counterbalance to excesses of the Democrats. Others, looking a century or two down the road at the future of humankind, might call it a criminal conspiracy. You be the judge.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).