President Obama calls it “terrifying” and the greatest long-term threat facing the world. Three hundred seventy-five of the world’s top experts just warned of “severe and long-lasting consequences” for the planet if America’s next president drops the ball. Yet only 19 percent of registered voters say it’s a top issue; Hillary Clinton increasingly ducks the topic, and Donald Trump characteristically dismisses it all as a “hoax.”
The issue, of course, is global warming. While reporters offer endless stories about Clinton’s emails and fainting spells, and Trump makes up new lies faster than fact-checkers can swat them down, few people in politics or the media are talking about the accelerating effects of climate change.
Global warming isn’t just a theory any more. NASA recently reported that this August tied with July as the “warmest month ever recorded,” following 11 straight months that set new global heat records. Since 2000, the Earth has experienced 14 of the 15 hottest years on record.
Relentless burning of fossil fuels and release of other heat-trapping gases has already increased the Earth’s average surface temperature by about 1 degree Celsius relative to the late Nineteenth Century. And that’s just for starters.
“Even if every nation in the world complies with the  Paris Agreement [on climate], the world will heat up by as much as 3.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 — not the 1.5 to 2 degrees promised in the pact’s preamble,” according to climate activist Bill McKibben.
Even today’s limited warming is wreaking havoc all across the globe. After storms in Louisiana last month dumped two feet of rain in 48 hours — killing 13 people, damaging more than 60,000 homes and businesses and causing $9 billion in economic losses — scientists reported that “climate change played a very clear and quantifiable role” in causing the disaster.
In other regions, from parched California to fire-ravaged Alberta, warming has caused record droughts, raging forest fires and billions of dollars more in damage. In the eastern Mediterranean, the worst drought of the last 900 years is causing hunger and widespread social disruption, contributing to mass migration and devastating conflicts like the wars in Syria and Libya.
Warming is bringing disease vectors, like mosquitos that carry malaria and Zika virus, ever deeper into formerly temperate areas. Warming and related ocean acidification are also “bleaching” coral reefs and wiping out fisheries. Warming is rapidly thinning Arctic ice and putting polar ecosystems at risk. As glaciers melt, sea levels are rising rapidly, inundating not only island nations but highly developed coastlines like the Eastern seaboard of the United States.
Worse Down the Road
And all this is just a start. An open letter just issued by 375 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and its foreign affiliates, including 30 Nobel laureates, warns that “rapid warming of the planet increases the risk of crossing climatic points of no return, possibly setting in motion large-scale ocean circulation changes, the loss of major ice sheets, and species extinctions. The climatic consequences of exceeding such thresholds are not confined to the next one or two electoral cycles. They have lifetimes of many thousands of years.”
They also took a direct swipe at Trump, saying “it is of great concern that the Republican nominee for President has advocated U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord. . . . Such a decision would make it far more difficult to develop effective global strategies for mitigating and adapting to climate change. The consequences of opting out of the global community would be severe and long-lasting – for our planet’s climate and for the international credibility of the United States.”
Surveys show that Republican are twice as likely as last year to express doubts about the existence of global warming, According to University of Michigan researchers, one factor may be their presidential candidate’s oft-repeated insistence that global warming is “a total, and very expensive, hoax!”
Clinton is squarely on record as acknowledging the challenge of global warming, and advocates massive investment in solar energy to make the United States a “clean energy superpower.” Evidently fearful of being branded “anti-jobs” or “pro-tax,” however, she has markedly downplayed discussion of the issue since beating Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary.
President Obama, for all his worthy attention to the issue, has consistently sent mixed messages. His infamous “all of the above” energy strategy, which includes energetic support for fracking, makes no distinction between fossil fuels and renewable energy.
In a recent interview touting his many economic successes, Obama boasted, “We’ve doubled the production of clean energy. Our production of traditional fossil fuels has exceeded all expectations.” Both may contribute to GDP, but only one offers a chance to salvage an Earth fit for human habitation.
Not surprisingly, the news media have fostered complacency or even hostility toward any federal response to global warming. The four major U.S. TV networks cut their already minimal coverage of climate issues to a combined total of just two-and-a-half hours for all of 2015 — despite the signing of the Paris climate agreement, the Pope’s encyclical on climate change, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, California’s record drought, and record-shattering high temperatures across the country.
In fact, the only network that significantly increased its coverage was Fox, but its agenda was disinformation, not education.
“The vast majority of that coverage included attacks on climate policies, or climate science denial,” said Andrew Seifter, climate and energy program director for Media Matters. “So, people who watch Fox for their climate coverage got more of it, but they didn’t necessarily learn more from watching it.”
Fox, in turn, gets its anti-science ammunition from a host of “think tanks” and advocacy organizations funded by petrochemical and coal interests ranging from the billionaire Koch brothers to Exxon, which spent anywhere from $16 million to $30 million over many years funding dozens of organizations that question the science of climate change.
Owing to their obstructionism, it’s too late now to stop global warming — but we can still limit its extent and damage. We already have most of the technology needed to transform the United States into a clean energy economy by 2050. And if we choose to invest abroad in cutting carbon rather than waging wars, the United States can have a truly global impact on this global challenge. But it will take a great effort, requiring great will. And that can only start with serious and sustained discussion of the perils we face.