During their presidencies, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush both took climate change seriously as a crisis. An internal memo to Bush’s secretary of state called climate change “the most far reaching environmental issue of our time” and urged American leadership on the issue.
The memo then quotes Secretary of State James A. Baker III’s words back to him. “As you yourself stated,” it said, “we cannot wait until all the uncertainties have been resolved before we act to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to prepare for whatever climate change we are already committed to.”
By the time Bush’s son was president, American climate leadership was in retreat. Bush pulled the United States out of the Kyoto Protocol, the first emissions-restricting climate treaty, under advisement from Exxon-Mobil. Republicans began to deny that climate change existed at all. And by the time this election rolled around, Senator Ted Cruz could cite Galileo as a role model for his evidence-free rejection of climate science.
“Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers,” Cruz said. “It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.”
It’s funny. Partisans regularly quibble with this economist or that intellectual, suggesting why one theory of welfare, immigration, or the market is more valid than another. And society is hard to study: It’s complex, culture-driven, and impossible to run experiments on. But the climate, a vast and impersonal system, is simply a different kind of subject. Scientists can come to conclusions about the climate’s operation in much clearer and difficult-to-dispute ways than economists can come to conclusions about their chosen field. Observation and commentary do not alter the climate in the same way they alter the economy. And scientists are unified in their understanding that fossil fuel emissions are spurring the planet to get warmer, leading to consequences that could be catastrophic within our and our children’s lifetimes.
It’s almost boring to note that the Republican Party, as an organization, has simply rejected these findings. (Sixty-eight percent of Republican representatives and senators reject anthropogenic climate change outright.) But it is worth noting. It has made the party weak, subject to people like Trump, who know how to say the right thing to the right people. And it has put the party on the wrong side of business interests and the free market: The solar industry already employs more people in this country than either the oil and gas industry or the coal industry.
Catching Trump in a double-bind, as Grist did, would be enjoyable if it weren’t so serious. The United States really did postpone the Earth, as Trump and the progressive gang warned them not to in that Times ad seven years ago. Congress did not pass a market-based scheme to cap greenhouse-gas emissions during Obama’s first term, and only last year did the Obama administration introduce EPA regulations to reduce carbon emissions from the power sector.
Yet climate change ground on, unfeeling and uncaring about political gridlock or intransigence. And all those climate records set during the 2000s have passed away. The three warmest years ever recorded are now considered to be 2014, 2015, and the one we’re living in right now.