"The government can’t change the weather," said Florida Senator Marco Rubio last week, describing his opposition to President Obama’s State of the Union call-to-action on climate change policy. Given the staggering costs of droughts, heat waves, and superstorms, it would seem our political leaders would come quickly to some consensus on these seemingly urgent issues and take some kind of concerted action. So where do our political leaders get their information that has instead led to partisan gridlock?
The President appears to be relying on facts, as he said in his speech. "The 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods—all are now more frequent and intense." These facts are buoyed by the costs in human life, higher food prices, and insurance payouts for the catastrophes he itemized. Moreover, the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2010 that 97% of 1,372 climate researchers agree that these fundamental changes in our climate are human-caused.
By contrast, Senator Rubio’s skepticism may be based on a very different set of numbers, such as 146 million. That’s the number of dollars spent in recent years by the Virginia-based Donors Trust and Donors Capital Fund to cast doubt on the causes of climate change. This money is more than double the contributions made to similar denial groups by the more widely publicized Koch brothers and seven times the funding provided by ExxonMobil during a similar period. In total, these funds can buy a lot of doubt about the overwhelming scientific consensus and the weather patterns that are changing before our eyes.
This battle of scientific fact versus special interest propaganda is not news, but that it continues to hamstring our leaders is more than a little disappointing. Senators Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer announced plans last week to try once more to draft laws that would benefit the environment and the economy, which should theoretically please both sides in this "debate."
"The legislation that Senator Boxer and I are introducing today … can actually address the crisis and … create millions of jobs as we transform our energy system away from fossil fuel and into energy efficiency and such sustainable energies as wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass," said Sanders.
Sanders and Boxer tried a similar bill in 2007, but this time split the measure into two. The Sustainable Energy Act would cut subsidies for the fossil fuel industry (in tough budget times, does anyone still think the taxpayer should subsidize oil and coal?) and give very modest support, compared to that enjoyed by fossil fuels for a century, to renewable energy from solar, wind, and geothermal.
The Climate Protection Act would put a price on carbon pollution from nearly 3,000 of the largest polluters covering about 85% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Sixty percent of the funds generated would follow the Alaskan oil dividend model—providing a monthly rebate to every U.S. resident. $300 billion would pay down the national debt and the remainder would help to weatherize a million residences a year, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs that can’t be outsourced to China or India, while saving households substantial energy costs. A billion dollars annually would be spent to retrain workers to participate in these clean-energy jobs.
The famous Simon and Garfunkel lyric says, "A man hears what he wants to hear and he disregards the rest." These two measures won’t be passed easily as long as many in Congress keep looking for junk science and excuses to justify business as usual. But as Albert Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If we want to avoid more of the human and economic costs of climate change in the future, it’s time to stop the insanity and demand meaningful change in the climate debate.