Imagine that an international group of scientists issued a stark warning that the world was very likely going to experience an increasing number of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions. And that this warning was endorsed by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every other major scientific organization in the world.

How would the U.S. Congress respond? Would it hold hearings and invite scientists untrained in these geological hazards to testify? Would it promote the ideas of those who argue that earthquakes don’t exist? Would it invite novelists to discuss the merits of the topic? Would some Congress members sit on their hands and do nothing, urged on by the construction industry, which might benefit from all the new work that the impending disasters would bring their way? Would they go after the scientists who brought forward the warnings about the looming threats, and seek to intimidate them and destroy their reputations and careers?

This scenario might seem far-fetched, yet this is exactly the situation that has unfolded over the issue of global warming. Scientific assessments have repeatedly and consistently shown that global warming is real, and largely the result of the burning of fossil fuels. These studies also show that there are real and present dangers if fossil fuel consumption is not reduced. The dangers include an increasingly unstable pattern of global climate, more severe weather and the inundation of low-lying coastal areas (where most big cities are located) due to a rise in sea level. These changes will impact agriculture and affect the world’s poorest people disproportionately. U.S. military experts consider the changes to be a “threat multiplier,” leading to societal instability in many regions, with potentially significant consequences for national security.

Yet the response of Congress has been utterly inept. Hearings commonly favor a hand-picked group of scientists, often with only marginal credentials in climate science, who cherry pick the overwhelming volume of scientific literature to try and convince the public that climate scientists are either misguided fools, or have deliberately manipulated data to achieve a desired outcome. Not content with this display of contempt for the scientific community, some politicians have also abused their positions to harass and intimidate scientists, whose only crime is to publish the results of their research and to speak out about the implications of what they have found.

Americans have shown remarkable support over the years for legislation to protect the environment, but they are understandably distracted by personal economic problems at the moment. Yet numerous studies have shown that there are real economic benefits to be gained from addressing global warming head on — developing new industries in green technology, energy production and efficient energy management.

Despite this, for many in Congress whose political and personal fortunes are closely tied to the energy industries that oppose legislation to control greenhouse gases, the topic is off limits: legislative initiatives are stalled or rejected outright. And so the United States sits on its hands while atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations approach levels not seen on Earth for more than 2.5 million years, bringing about changes in global climate we are woefully unprepared to deal with.