Mother Nature has put it all together during an impactful summer of 2023. The Northeast and Northwest have choked on smoke from Canadian wildfires. Vermont was stricken by floods. A semi-permanent “heat dome” lodged over the West and moved last week to mid-America. Much of the inland West has been stricken by drought, interrupted last week by a tropical storm roaring ashore in Southern California.
As many as 150 million Americans have found themselves under heat alerts during our season of climate hell. A fire on Maui resulted in a record death toll. Water temperatures in waters off Florida have reached hot tub levels of 100 degrees, in time to fuel the hurricane season.
Even so, Americans remain deeply divided, along partisan lines, on whether human-caused climate change is to blame for extreme weather conditions. They are equally split on whether extreme weather conditions will increase, all this according to findings of a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll released earlier this week.
The Post-UMD poll lays out how the nation’s political divisions have settled like a stagnant air mass over the environment. In the survey, taken in mid-July, 87 percent of Democratic-leaning adults said weather extremes are growing more severe, up from 82 percent in 2019. Just 37 percent of Republican-leaning adults agreed, DOWN from 42 percent four years ago.
Seventy-eight percent of Democratic-leaning voters agreed that climate change is having an impact on the area where they live. Just 30 percent of Republican-leaning adults gave the same opinion, with 70 percent saying only a little effect or no impact. Overall, more than 40 percent of those surveyed said their area has been hit by severe storms, flooding or droughts, with 45 percent saying their region has experienced wildfires or wildfire smoke.
The Post-UMD poll asked: “Do you think human activity is or is not causing changes to the world’s climate, including an increase in average temperature?” Yes, answered an overwhelming 93 percent of Democratic-leaning adults. The Republicans were split, 55 percent saying human activity is heating the planet, 42 percent answering in the negative.
The bad news is attitudes have hardened along party lines. Since 2019, as shown in the Post-UMD survey, Republicans “haven’t budged from their skepticism about climate change’s being a major factor in heat waves, while the percentage of Democrats making the link has increased from 79 to 85 percent.” A possible reason for GOP skepticism: Six in 10 Republicans believe that the media has “generally exaggerated” the seriousness of global warming and climate change.
The divide is reflected in public policy. President Biden has called the climate crisis “an existential threat to our nation and the world,” A Democratic-run Congress, in 2022, passed the Inflation Reduction Act, the country’s largest-ever package of tax breaks, incentives, and subsidies designed to wean us from dependence on fossil fuels. Republicans, in both House and Senate, were unanimous in their opposition.
In last Wednesday night’s Republican candidates’ debate, rookie GOP presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy echoed ex-President Trump in describing the climate crisis as “a hoax.” As to energy policy, said Ramaswamy, “I would drill, frack, mine coal, and embrace nuclear.” The Wisconsin audience roared its approval. Many provisions to Ramaswamy’s wish list are included in a Republican energy package passed by the House earlier this summer.
Environmentalism, in these parts and nationally, used to be a bipartisan cause. Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Wash., crafted the National Environmental Policy Act, which Republican President Richard Nixon signed into law. Likewise the Clean Air Act, later strengthened under President George H.W. Bush. A Republican from Indiana (and later Washington state), William Ruckelshaus, was the first administrator of the U.S. Environmental Administration.
Our state’s first package of environmental laws, in 1970, was pushed by GOP Gov. Dan Evans and aided by presumed 1972 challenger Democratic State Sen. Martin Durkan. Opposition was led by such lawmakers as Rep. Dick Kink of Bellingham: my parents turned to a Republican to toss him from the Legislature.
Our state’s Growth Management Act had the backing of Democratic House Speaker Joe King (and rookie State Rep. Maria Cantwell), but also GOP Senate Majority Leader Jeanette Hayner. Four Republican U.S. Senators – Dan Evans, Slade Gorton, Mark Hatfield, and Bob Packwood – helped craft Washington and Oregon wilderness bills signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.
Contrast this to the present day. Eastern Washington has been hit by large and lethal wildfires, witness Medical Lake last week. Exurban areas near Spokane regularly find found themselves – literally – under fire, yet, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., led floor opposition to the Inflation Reduction Act and led support for the House GOP energy bill. McMorris Rodgers chairs the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee.
A scientific consensus holds that human activity has intensified the effects and speed of climate change as well as being a reason for more extreme weather. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found “unequivocal” links between human activity and the warming of the planet, according to a 2021 report by the IPCC.
July was the hottest month in world history, at least since record-keeping began, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S). Heat waves hit Europe, the western United States, even places in the Arctic. The global average temperature was 16.95 degrees Celsius (62.51 Fahrenheit), surpassing a record set in 2019. Temperatures exceeded 40C (104 Fahrenheit) in such European countries as Greece, France, Italy, and Spain.
The summer of 2023 has seen a record deadly fire in Maui, but also lethal conflagrations in Greece. July is estimated to have been about 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than the average between 1850 and 2000, the C3S found, and 0.72 C warmer than the 1991-2000 average. The Arctic is warming at a rate four times that of the rest of our planet.
The C3S’ deputy director, Dr. Samantha Burgess, told the press: “We just witnessed global air temperatures and global ocean surface temperatures set new all-time records in July. These records have dire consequences for both people and the planet exposed to ever more frequent and extreme events . . . . Even if this is only temporary, it shows the urgency or ambitious efforts to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, which are the main driver behind these records.”
Our political and cultural divisions impede the urgent need for response. The one GOP candidate who acknowledged the climate crisis, Nikki Haley, called for action – elsewhere. “Is climate change real?” she asked in the Republican debate. “Yes it is. But if you go and want to really change the environment, then we need to start telling China and India that they have to lower their emissions.”
There’s a strong element of nativism in Republicans’ skepticism and resistance. They’re not ready to heed encyclicals on environmental justice from Pope Francis or warnings from the United Nations. Or heed warnings from United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres that “the era of global boiling has arrived.”
One hope is that surveys show that young people, of whatever background or ideological bent, are intensely concerned at the state of a planet they will inherit. It’s revealing that an activist from the conservative Young Americas Foundation (proprietors of the Reagan ranch) asked the climate change question at Wednesday’s candidate debate. The same week saw formation of a progressive PAC, called Leaders We Deserve, aimed at recruiting and supporting gen-Z legislative and congressional candidates who share an issue emphasis on climate and guns
At this moment, sadly, a polarized nation thwarts the need for a mobilized nation.