There’s been a flurry of environmental news this week, and it’s only Tuesday.
We learned on Monday that as many as 1 million distinct species face extinction, which likely “means grave impacts on people around the world,” according to a United Nations report. Atmospheric carbon dioxide readings have flirted with a daily average of 415 parts per million, a concentration of the heat-trapping gas that hasn’t been seen in millions of years. The amount of sea ice in the Arctic, which normally peaks in March, is well below average and well below the levels seen in 2012, when it hit a record low in September.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addressed the decline in sea ice during a meeting of the Arctic Council on Monday. His take? It’s good.
“Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade,” Pompeo said. “This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days.” He warned that Russia and China were moving quickly to take advantage of the new opportunity.
This isn’t a new concern. In 2012, Maj. Gen. Francis Mahon identified the strategic importance of the Arctic during the Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition that year.
“The Arctic is receding,” he said, adding that “the northern coast is about to become a real coast; maybe not today, maybe not this year, but in a short time. We need to start thinking about that.”
The military has been planning for the effects of climate change for years. Congress, on the other hand, hasn’t.
This is immediately obvious from the lack of legislation addressing the warming planet. The most significant governmental action taken in recent years focused on the climate was the United States joining the Paris climate accord, an agreement aimed at curtailing greenhouse gas emissions globally. In June 2017, President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the agreement’s self-policed climate goals.
The most important factor in Congress’s failure to act is a long-standing and broad partisan divide on the need for urgent action. To illustrate that, we used data from ProPublica compiling public statements from members of Congress. We looked for mentions of “climate” — a broad term — by month, party and chamber.
The divide between Democrats and Republicans in the frequency with which they mentioned climate is stark.
In nearly every month, Democrats have been far more likely to talk about climate change in public statements than have Republicans.
A number of those Republican statements have been made to express skepticism about the need to address the problem. Of the 219 statements mentioning the Green New Deal, for example, two-thirds have been released by Republicans.
Opposition to the Green New Deal and to addressing climate change generally is often rooted in concern that attempting to reduce emissions would have negative effects on the economy. The embodiment of those concerns is that curtailing carbon dioxide emissions would mean shifting away from the use of coal to generate electricity (a primary source of carbon dioxide production) and would therefore put coal miners out of work. (In 2016, Hillary Clinton didn’t help matters in that regard.)
Republicans have talked about coal miners much more than Democrats.
In recent months, though, Republicans have raised the subject less frequently, perhaps because of Trump’s focus on the issue and the reduced likelihood of significant action that would reduce coal use. At the same time, there are signs that some in the party are starting to actually consider action on addressing climate change.
Remarkably, in 50 of the past 74 months, there have been more Republican statements mentioning coal miners than the climate.
Why that divide? Largely because views of climate change are highly polarized. It’s become embedded in the political culture wars: Addressing climate change is a function of liberalism run amok, not an important attempt to fix a crisis. Worrying about the state of the world is alarmism, worthy of being waved away.
How, for example, did Fox News’s Bret Baier cover the report about the possibility of mass extinction of species?
“Environmentalists are in a panic tonight over a new report suggesting over 1 million animal and plant species are at imminent risk of extinction and humanity is to blame,” Baier said. “As in all such cases, some humans say the report and the response are exaggerations.”
Congressional statements are a good way to gauge the importance of issues for members of Congress, but few people ever see them.
Lots of people see Fox News.