America’s COVID-19 response bodes ill for effective climate action

A strange and dangerous phenomenon has taken hold among a significant segment of the U.S. population in recent years — a profound distrust of scientists and scientific consensus. It is puzzling that a nation responsible for so many remarkable achievements in medicine, technology, you name it, in the past century includes so many people who refuse to give credence to provable scientific facts. Instead, they put full faith and credit in easy-to-disprove “alternate facts” and conspiracy theories they find on amazing scientific devices that could not have been conceived of decades ago.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the poster child for this rejection of scientific consensus. Epidemiologists told us early on that masking would prevent the spread of the virus until an effective vaccine was developed. When the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved for use late last year, we were told that universal vaccination would bring the pandemic to a halt.

Nevertheless, many red-state political leaders have been, and still are, fighting masking and only 57 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. About 19 percent say they will refuse the vaccine. It is estimated that about 200,000 avoidable COVID-19 deaths occurred in the U.S. last year because of the botched response, and that about the same number of Americans died this year for failure to take advantage of readily available, safe and effective vaccine-preventable deaths, largely attributable to science denial.

This unfortunate death toll will pale in comparison to the massive death toll this country and the rest of the world will experience unless dramatic action is taken to reduce the massive flow of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Yet, many of the same science deniers are trying to prevent effective action from being taken to control those emissions. We have seen this play out in the negotiations over President Biden’s two infrastructure proposals, both of which were designed to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Senate-passed infrastructure bill contains significant, but whittled down, climate provisions. It passed on a bipartisan vote, but with the support of less than half of Republican senators. Every GOP senator opposes the larger reconciliation proposal, while Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a fossil fuel advocate, has done everything he can to eliminate climate provisions from it. These pared-down measures will ineffective to avert climate catastrophe. The anti-science forces have scored a qualified success with the bills. The outlook for future climate action during the remainder of Biden’s presidency is dim, unless Democrats can maintain or, better, increase their majorities in the 2022 elections. 

There is a growing public awareness that climate change is a serious threat to the planet. Yet, a sizable minority of Republican voters and most GOP officeholders are either climate deniers or simply unwilling to do much if anything about it. As with COVID-19, this is not a situation where we can muddle through with just hundreds of thousands of deaths here and there along the way. It is a real threat to human existence on the Earth and must be dealt with as such.

In August, a scientific panel of the United Nations sounded a “code red for humanity,” reporting that global warming is dangerously close to spiraling out of control. The heat already trapped in Earth’s atmosphere has almost doubled since 2005. Scientists of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced in April that carbon dioxide levels were higher now than at any time in the last 3.6 million years. Despite a decrease in industrial emissions last year, due to the pandemic, the accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere increased. NASA has reported that 2020 tied 2016 as the hottest year on record and that the world’s seven warmest years have all occurred since 2014. The Earth is currently gripped in a mass extinction event brought on by global warming.

The climate-denying GOP establishment characterizes this scientific consensus as mostly a bunch of pointy-headed scientists trying to justify their existence. But we don’t really need scientists to tell us of climate dangers because the evidence is in the news and all around us every day — erratic and violent weather events across the country and wider world, searing heat, persistent droughts, biblical deluges, unprecedented wildfires, climate-induced migrations, warming oceans and declining fish stocks, among many other frightening phenomena.

After four years of destructive climate policies under President Trump, many in this country and the wider world were hoping for the restoration of U.S. leadership to seriously tackle this existential threat to life on the planet.

Unfortunately, President Biden is participating in the Glasgow climate summit with little to show the international community on the global warming front. It will take a united front in this country, which depends on just a little help from Republicans, to forge a united front of nations to solve this complex problem. I hope we do not have to tell our grandchildren that we miserably failed them and that they must do their best to adapt to an uninhabitable hothouse thanks to a clutch of obstinate GOP science deniers.

Jim Jones is a Vietnam combat veteran who served eight years as Idaho attorney general (1983-1991) and 12 years as a justice of the Idaho Supreme Court (2005-2017). He is currently a regular contributor to The Hill.

Tags #coronavirus #2019nCoV #covid19 budget reconciliation package. climate change COP26 Donald Trump Joe Biden Joe Manchin

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