The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion As climate catastrophes multiply, Republicans rethink denialism

A scorched structure and vehicles can be seen June 2 on property damaged by the Hermits Peak Calf Canyon fire in New Mexico. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Each day seems to bring us a zombie step closer to the climate apocalypse.

Drought in the West. Fires in the Southwest. Power outages coming to the Midwest. Monkeypox and other strange diseases spreading. Food prices soaring. Migration and crime exploding. Giant spiders arriving with young that can parachute from the sky. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration going full Lake Wobegon, forecasting a seventh consecutive “above-average” hurricane season.

It might feel as if The End Is Near. But fear not: House Republicans are swinging into action.

After a quarter century of Republican climate denialism, The Post’s Maxine Joselow and Jeff Stein revealed this exciting news last week: “House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) plans to unveil a strategy Thursday outlining how Republicans would address climate change, energy and environmental issues.”

But there were just a couple of small problems with the resulting two-pager put out by the House GOP “Energy, Climate, & Conservation Task Force.” The strategy didn’t, er, actually mention the word “climate.” Neither did it make any commitment to decreasing greenhouse-gas emissions. The only indirect acknowledgment that climate change is even a thing was a call to mine more rare minerals of the sort used in batteries. And the strategy included a gusher of proposals to boost oil and gas production.

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The Sierra Club’s legislative director, Melinda Pierce, called the plan “McCarthy’s latest attempt to greenhouse gaslight the American public.”

In fairness, the man in charge of the Republican task force, Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), says the group plans to outline a fuller climate-change strategy later this year. In an interview, he told me that “global emissions as a result of our strategy would go down more than they would under Biden,” who has set a target for cutting U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions in half by 2030. No climate denier, Graves also said he wants to “try and change the trajectory and try to hit that 1.5 C target” — the Paris agreement’s goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

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It would be an extraordinary achievement if Graves could persuade his fellow Republicans to undergo such a sea change on climate — and I wish him gigawatts of power as he attempts it. For now, his colleagues continue to operate under what might be termed the R.E.M. climate policy: It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

That avert-your-gaze approach worked well enough when the climate debate was about theoretical sea-level models and Arctic ice projections. But now the crisis is real and present, with food shortages, electric outages and pestilence already plaguing us.

Last week, The Post’s Evan Halper wrote that “a large swath of the Midwest” is among the areas facing a summer of rolling blackouts of the sort seen in California and Texas — a byproduct of “extreme weather precipitated by climate change,” among other things.

The World Health Organization last week reported that climate change is accelerating outbreaks of monkeypox, Lassa fever, Ebola and other diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of health threats increased by climate change includes anthrax, dengue fever, plague and rabies, along with disease-causing fungi in soil and algae and cyanobacteria contaminating water.

Prices for wheat and other commodities have soared, in part because of extreme weather. (India recently banned wheat exports because of a heatwave-caused shortage.) U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said last month that global food prices have risen by almost one-third in a year, and the number of severe food-insecure people has doubled in two years.

The drought in the Southwest is the most extreme in 1,200 years, a study found this year. Fires burning for two months in New Mexico have already consumed more than 600,000 acres. Tropical Storm Alex has already flooded Miami.

And that’s just a taste of what’s to come. Studies indicate we can expect more climate-related lung disease, heart disease, cancer, infertility, migration, armed conflict and violent crime. As a result, we can also expect more depression, anxiety, suicide and addiction.

Facing so many disasters, it’s only natural for people to try to look the other way. “It’s an important defense mechanism that allows people to go about their day by pretending that this is not happening,” says LaUra Schmidt, who founded the Good Grief Network, which uses a 10-step program inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous to help people “metabolize collective grief, eco-anxiety and other heavy emotions that arise in response to daunting planetary crises.”

But as climate disasters shift from abstract to imminent, the look-away strategy starts to fail. “It’s a defense mechanism until it’s on our doorstep, until the fires are here,” Schmidt says.

That moment has arrived. A belated decision by Republicans to abandon the denialism and join the fight sure could brighten our doomsday.

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