Internationally, the outlook seems just as daunting. The lofty goal of the Paris conference is to sign a legally binding agreement—the result of five years of discussions and deal-making—that aims to reduce carbon emissions significantly by 2050. The U.S. Senate isn’t likely to approve a full-blown treaty, given Republicans’ presumed opposition, so the Obama administration will push for a less sovereignty-challenging version of an international agreement.
Regardless of what Americans believe or don’t believe, the average global temperatures have risen over the past several decades, according to well-regarded international scientific institutions. A study in 2013 of climate scientists who had published papers in peer-reviewed journals found that 97 percent of those who took a position on the causes of global warming agreed that human activity was partly to blame.
The world’s sea level has been rising at roughly a tenth of an inch per year, according to satellite data collected since the 1990s, which threatens lowlands in places as different as South Florida and New York City. Life is getting hotter in arid places such as Texas, which has seen average daily temperatures rise by more than a half-degree per decade since 1970. Rainfall has grown more intense in the Midwest.
Americans may disagree on why these things are happening and whether the weather will keep getting worse. But they’re happening. So, if legislative action is stymied that might reduce carbon emissions and thereby prevent the problem from getting worse, what can a greenhouse-baked populace do? The answer is: adapt. And with Washington dysfunctional, local governments and businesses around the country are taking innovative steps to do just that.
These steps needn’t be partisan; at the local level, ideology gives way to practicality. In the frontline of extreme weather, people want an end to flooded basements, and they don’t much care much whether believers or nonbelievers, liberals or conservatives, supply the solutions. Judith Rodin, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, has studied how cities can learn to bounce back. Local officials don’t need to believe in climate change to respond to it, she says. “The closer the elected official is to the ground and the more they are required to deliver every day," she explains, "the less they focus on the causes and the more they’re focusing on the reality of these shocks and the fact that they need to prepare for them better.”
Look at the small city of Dubuque, Iowa, forced into a $200 million public works project to alleviate flooding that scientists say has been aggravated by climate change. The Republican governor of Iowa sounds indecisive about whether the climate is warming and why, but an increase in sudden, heavy rainfalls during the past several decades finally persuaded Dubuque—with the state government's financial help—to take major steps to prevent the deluges that periodically wash out low-lying neighborhoods along the Mississippi River. When there’s a foot of water in your basement, climate change feels tangible—and smells.