By Ashlyn Nuckols.
“It felt like the world was going to end.” This was Alice Clements’s reaction when asked about her experience as a survivor of Cyclone Pam, a Category Five storm that swept through the Republic of Vanuatu last week. The cyclone has been described as one of the most devastating natural disasters in the island nation’s history, wiping out entire towns and leaving tens of thousands of people homeless according to UN estimates. The full extent of the damage, however, remains unclear because of blocked communication lines with some of the islands that bore the brunt of the storm.
Clements, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Children’s Fund, described the event to reporters with an apocalyptic metaphor that captures the fear and helplessness people often feel in the face of natural disasters on such an extreme scale. However, the destruction wrought by Cyclone Pam is viewed by some as yet another reason to discuss a literal end to the world as we know it—and the role climate change may be playing in hastening that end. Between this and President Obama’s recent push for a global climate change accord—over the heads of a protesting congressional majority—the future of the environment is enjoying a rare moment at the center of national attention. And as is always the case when climate change is put in the political spotlight in this country, alarmists and deniers are determinedly butting heads in a fight that leaves no room for compromise. Events that should unite politicians continue to prove divisive. Activists must now focus on bridging this divide if there is to be any hope of developing long-term solutions to the problem.
Those who deny that human actions have played a significant role, or any role at all, in accelerating climate change berate the use of tragedies like Cyclone Pam to rally support for environmental causes. Many point out that while the evidence that global temperatures are rising is compelling, it is impossible to accurately attribute the size of a particular storm to changes induced by human actions. Others such as Alabama Representative Robert Aderholt argue that that climate change is not the result of carbon emissions and other forms of pollution, but of a “a natural warming cycle,” the likes of which have occurred throughout the earth’s history.
While there have indeed been warming and cooling periods throughout earth’s history, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the unprecedented speed at which the globe is currently warming is “very likely” the result of human activities. Similarly, scientists admit that individual weather events cannot be attributed with absolute certainty to changes in climate—but a study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that cyclones are consistently larger under warmer conditions. Even more telling, the study noted that there has been a significant increase in the frequency of these storms from 1923 to the present, and data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that in 2013 countries in the Pacific Basin recorded the highest increases in sea levels in the world. Christopher Loek, President of the Republic of Vanuatu, had no qualms about attributing his nations recent struggles to global warming, stating that, “the Pacific is fighting for its survival, climate change has already arrived.”
President Loek’s statement is a powerful one, and one well received by the growing community of climate change activists in the US. However, if they are hoping to secure a lasting agenda for change, it is unlikely that such fatalistic language will serve them well on the home front. Climate change activists may have overwhelming evidence and the consensus of the scientific community on their side, but this means very little if their call to action is only heeded by one of the two parties shaping the nation’s policy agenda. Senator Ted Cruz, who recently announced his candidacy for the Presidency in 2016, is a vocal denier of climate change and would likely make no effort to build upon President Obama’s efforts to curb our national carbon footprint should he take office. The political gridlock that so often hinders progress in fighting climate change is largely the result of deniers who perceive any mention of the issue as a threat to their economic agenda, and the interests of their donors in the energy industry. For example, the danger of climate change was brought up on a number of occasions by democrats attempting to block the recent bill approving the keystone pipeline (which President Obama vetoed this month). However, lasting gridlock is also perpetuated by the “alarmists” who present their cause as an attack on the political right, big business, and even our capitalist system as a whole. This is by no means the position of the majority of citizens and politicians who support taking measures to combat climate change, but it is these more extreme voices that make it easy for Republicans to stay on the defensive, calling the activists irrational and using this as an excuse to disregard any potential compromise.
The fact is that climate change should not be such a controversial issue. Midterm exit polls show that 58 percent of American citizens, both Democrat and Republican, see climate change as a “serious problem.” According to a Yale study, 62 percent of citizens identifying as “moderate Republicans” at least agree that global warming is happening and 56 of all Republicans support regulating pollutants such as carbon dioxide. This position is hardly reflected by the actions of Republicans in Congress, however, who have repeatedly sought to block EPA regulations on carbon dioxide. This agenda might seem out of touch with scientific evidence and public mandate, but the truth is Republicans are fighting a battle that has more to do with party antagonisms than whether or not they believe the planet’s core temperature is rising.
When asked about their position, many of those opposed to taking action to slow climate change give replies similar to that of Alabama Representative Mo Brooks, who insists that liberals have been creating a global warming scare “in order to generate funds for their pet projects.” Others have repeatedly voiced the fear that liberals are using climate change as a guise for launching an alleged “war on capitalism.” The claim is certainly exaggerated, but a number of extreme voices on the left have actually given Republicans evidence to back it up. The Guardian News organization, for example, recently introduced a campaign to fight climate change with excerpts from This Changes Everything: Climate vs. Capitalism by Naomi Klein, an outspoken anti-capitalist. While voices like Klein’s are certainly valuable to the overall debate concerning the future of our global climate, politicians need to avoid employing similar rhetoric that will only confirm their fears of those who claim to see climate change as a leftist conspiracy and fortify their unwillingness to compromise.
What is needed right now isn’t scare politics, even when natural disasters provide more fuel for that fire each day, but instead an appeal to moderation and reasonable discussion about the situation. President Obama is poised to take important steps on his own with a possible international climate change agreement, but there are two dominant political parties in this country, and lasting progress will require that both sides are on board. Before we can combat the growing threat of extreme weather conditions, the issues of climate change must be rescued from extremists on both sides and brought to the center of the political arena where it belongs.