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US Senator and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. For the record, the GOP's official position on climate change is best summarized this way: Let the planet burn. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)

Playing to Lose: Electing the GOP in the Age of Climate Chaos

David Goldstein

"This is just the fire alarm. It is not the fire." —Climate Scientist David Archer.

"Catastrophic global warming is a hoax. That conclusion is supported by the painstaking work of the nation's top climate scientists." Senator James Inhofe, R-OK (Will head Environment and Public Works Committee with G.O.P majority).

"The EPA has adopted greenhouse gas regulations on the basis of scientific assumptions that have been totally undermined by the latest science." Senator Ted Cruz, R-TX (Will head Subcommittee on Science with G.O.P majority).

"I am not a scientist." Senator Mitch McConnell, R-KY (Will become Senator Majority Leader of the Senate with G.O.P majority.)

"Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems." November 1, 2014 IPCC Synthesis Climate Change Report.

Among the future trends that will impact our national security is climate change. Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels, and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.

In our defense strategy, we refer to climate change as a 'threat multiplier' because it has the potential to exacerbate many of the challenges we are dealing with today - from infectious disease to terrorism. We are already beginning to see some of these impacts. -- U.S. Department of Defense 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Road Map.

It's 2014 and the wealthiest, most powerful, most influential nation in the world may be on the verge of electing the Republican party into majority in the U.S. Senate. Congressional (both House and Senate) GOPers run the climate change evasion/denial gamut from, "I am not a scientist and so am unable to comment," to, "It's a hoax and the scientists are liars."

The most cursory examination of human history reveals that governments of all stripes have enacted policies born of thoughtlessness, ignorance and cruelty. But here's the thing: Until recently, if you were lucky, you could escape the consequences of such policies. If you were especially "lucky," you might even benefit.

Think about it -- until the advent of nuclear weaponry and climate change, the results of humans' destructive actions upon other humans could be broken down into three segments: 1) The Winners, 2) The Losers, 3) The Neutrals.

For example, let's say Sparta was feeling restless and decided to conquer and pillage Athens. Within weeks Athens is reduced to smoldering ruins, the citizens killed or enslaved. The Spartans are the "Winners," the Athenians clearly the "Losers." Meanwhile folks in Crete could go about harvesting their olives without batting an eye. And so forth.

For hundreds of thousands of years: Wars, slavery, famine, pollution = Winners, Losers and Neutrals. Real life "Hunger Games" were well contained within a seemingly limitless "Gaming Arena" -- our biosphere. But, though many have yet to notice, a millions-of-years-in-the-making pivotal event has occurred: The rules of the game have changed. We have achieved the truly incredible: We have "Filled the World." Let's take just a moment to appreciate the momentous scope of this accomplishment.

Imagine: A few million years ago in East Africa, John or Jane Australopithecus walked along a creek. Her eyes played over the rocks along the creek bed and, out of nowhere, came a revelation: "Wait a minute, if I chipped a few flakes off that volcanic stone, I could use it to hit other things. I could also dig with it. I could even cut and slice things with the sharp flakes I chip off."

And so, in a vast world, essentially unaltered by its inhabitants for billions of years, humans set about reconfiguring the landscape with abandon. The crude tools progressed to fire, language, the wheel, weapons, art, agriculture, metals, towns, villages, cities, nations, fossil fuels, the splitting of the atom.

And still, for many hundreds of thousands of years, our prodigious production was accommodated by expansive tracts of wild-lands, fathomless oceans, and the horizon-less atmosphere. Our tragic and beautiful "games" proceeded apace and, if you were fortunate, you came out a winner or, at least, a neutral. If you chose to, you could knock on wood, rub your lucky rabbit's foot and simply ignore the plight of the losers.

But then, a few hundred years ago, with the advent of fossil fuels, things jumped from incremental to "exponential." If, until that point, we could change and make and grow things at a "5" on a 1-100 scale, it suddenly jumped to 20, then 50, then 85. Our population went along for the exponential ride as well: Three million years for the first two billion, another 85 years for the next five billion.

And, of course, the scope of the "games" increased as well. Wars began to mean millions of casualties, expansion meant the loss of half-continent's worth of forests, pollution meant the contamination of entire rivers and lakes. 1700, 1800, 1900 came and went, and though our biospheric arena began to show signs of wear and tear, still Winners and Neutrals were produced along with the Losers.

But even the biggest, most complex systems have their tipping points. First, our ingenuity enabled us to "bring the Sun down to Earth:" Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Well, we noticed that. The mushroom clouds and the utter annihilation at ground zero impressed us enough to have refrained for the past 70 years.

And now comes climate change, another game-changer. The "fire" of climate change, somewhat unfortunately, burns more slowly than that of the split atom: decades as opposed to a terrifying instant in time. But our greenhouse gases have pushed the gaming arena itself to overflowing; your lucky rabbit's foot will not help you. Oh sure, if we continue to pour carbon into the atmosphere and forests and oceans, the privileged will be able to escape the deterioration for a bit longer than the average or under-average Joe. But, ultimately, no one will be immune.

The "fire alarm" period of climate change is moving rapidly to the "fire" itself. Feedbacks from ice-melt to permafrost thaw to warming oceans are set to make that familiar jump from incremental to exponential. And, in possibly the most privileged country of all, it appears that its citizens may elect into office a majority of folks who evince little interest in sending the fire trucks.

This is not to say that climate change is a completely partisan issue. Climate scientists such as Richard Alley are on-the-record members of the GOP. Recently, a few Republican Senate candidates have even allowed that human actions are causing climate change, before quickly pivoting to quash any possibility of actually putting a price on carbon. And many Democrats fall considerably short when it comes to advocating policy congruent with the scientist's recommendations. But it would be naïve and misleading to claim that significant differences do not exist along party lines.

In March of this year, 30 Senators pulled an all night session in an effort to draw attention to the climate arena. Not a single G.O.P Senator attended. Take a look at this map for an idea of how climate denial/evasion breaks down along party lines.

A vast majority of folks continue to underestimate the largely irreversible impacts we are on track to visit upon our children and grandchildren. Most are somewhere in the neighborhood of, "Hmm, perhaps we should see what that alarm is about and maybe call the fire department," when the scientists and events on the ground dictate an all-hands-on-deck response.

Humanity's so-far tepid response is our across-all-party's collective failing and is ominous enough. It is a tragedy, then, that, as we edge closer to the brink of the "fire" itself, we may go in the completely dead-wrong direction: ushering in folks who, far from calling all-hands-on-deck, seem prepared to disable the alarm altogether.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
David Goldstein

David Goldstein

David Goldstein is a writer and climate activist. He lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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