WASHINGTON – We now know that 2014 was the hottest year in recorded history. We also know that President Barack Obama can expect little help from Republicans in Congress – some of them cynical, others clueless – in facing the most daunting environmental challenge of our time.
Scientists from NASA and NOAA announced Friday that last year narrowly edged out former record-holders 2010 and 2005 as the warmest since reliable temperature measurements began. Unlike those other scorchers, 2014 did not have the benefit of an El Nino meteorological phenomenon, which tends to boost temperatures.
“Hold on a minute,” I hear someone objecting, “I seem to recall that last winter featured the dreaded polar vortex, which brought frigid arctic air to much of the United States. Some warming!”
Is that you, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., new chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee? The U.S. Senate’s point man on climate change? Let me try to put this in a way you might understand. The planet we live on is really, really big – so big that when it’s cold in our country, which covers only a small percentage of earth’s surface, it can be hot in other places. At the very same time!
OK, I’m being somewhat unfair. Inhofe actually reacted to the news of 2014’s record heat by calling the reported increase tiny and meaningless. But his long-held position is not that climate change is overblown or misinterpreted or poorly understood, but that it is actually a “hoax” and a “conspiracy.” He wrote a book taking this stance. At times, he has claimed that global warming, if it were indeed taking place, would be a good thing. And he has scoffed at the notion that humans could ever have such a massive impact on God’s immense creation.
Let me repeat: This is the man whose task is to lead the United States Senate in setting environmental policy.
GOP leaders in both houses tend to take the standard Republican position on climate change, which is basically to absolve themselves of the obligation to take a position – by asserting that they are not scientists.
“Clearly we’ve had changes in our climate,” House Speaker John Boehner said last week. “I’ll let the scientists debate the sources, in their opinion, of that change. But I think the real question is that every proposal we see out of this administration with regard to climate change means killing American jobs.”
As Boehner knows, but finds inconvenient to admit, scientists have had their debate. It’s over. Among climate scientists, there is consensus approaching unanimity that climate change is being driven by the rapidly increasing concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which, in turn, is being caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
It is known through direct observation that carbon dioxide levels have risen an astounding 40 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The rise began after human society began burning coal and petroleum products on an unprecedented scale.
To posit that this is some kind of coincidence is absurd. People begin pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases rapidly; and these two facts are supposed to be unrelated?
Obama can, should and must make climate change one of the major themes of his remaining time in office. If he gets no help from Congress, he has the obligation to do what he can on his own.
Fortunately, he is off to a good start. Last fall’s unexpected agreement with China on restricting carbon emissions gave new impetus to the quest for an international treaty on climate change, which had seemed on the verge of collapse. With the world’s two biggest economies – and biggest carbon emitters – now putting new focus and resources into alternative energy sources, new economies of scale and potential breakthroughs are possible.
Domestically, Obama’s biggest impact will come not from whatever happens with the Keystone XL pipeline but from the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule-making on carbon emissions from power plants. Reasonable limits will require a transition away from coal toward cleaner fuels.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who comes from the coal-mining state of Kentucky, will squawk. But the EPA’s authority to regulate carbon is well established. Instead of pretending there’s some kind of debate about climate change, Congress ought to be working on economic development alternatives for coal-mining regions that will inevitably suffer.
“Hottest Year On Record” is a headline that encourages sanity on climate change. Break it to Sen. Inhofe gently.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.