Climate Change: A Race We Must Win

By Frank F Islam & Ed Crego, August 1, 2023 (Image credits: Tom de Boor, Adobe, Dreamstime, et al)

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

— Robert Frost

As 2021 drew to a close, we named “critical race” our word for that year. We chose critical race because, as we stated back then, America and Americans were in a race for the future comprised of many major contests.

The contests we named at that time included: competition with China, domestic conflict, and climate change. With regard to climate change, we observed,

While the political climate has heated up and become an intensely polarized one, the environmental climate has possibly heated up even more rapidly. Look at the events across the United States, the out-of-control wildfires in the West, the flooding in the Southeast, and the unprecedented winds and flooding in the Northeast.

Approaching two years later, in 2023, it appears that the United States may very well be losing that part of the race. Consider these opening paragraphs from Amanda Taub’s July 12 column from The Interpreter, a subscriber-only newsletter of the New York Times:

Daily climate disasters are the new normal. In the past week, heavy rain on one side of the U.S. caused catastrophic flooding in New York and Vermont, and on the other side sent houses sliding off California mountains. The ocean off Florida has surface temperatures in the 90s Fahrenheit, and Arizonans have endured over-110-degree heat for more than a week.

That’s just one country, just this week. In Europe last summer, an estimated 60,000 people died of extreme heat, according to a new analysis. This year, with even higher global heat records, is likely to be worse.

The global effort to mount a robust response to climate change faces many barriers, with political dysfunction, polarization, and greed prominent among them. But since writing my column last month about the success of a U.S. program for H.I.V./AIDS treatment, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that political psychology plays in the crises of climate change and other thorny issues in which leaders struggle with prevention versus response.

Ms. Taub proceeds from there to provide an excellent discussion showing that people are more inclined to support actions targeted at reacting to disasters than to preventing them. She concludes her column with this thought-provoking observation and question:

A lot of climate messaging focuses on the need to prevent catastrophe. But the floods and mudslides and smoke-filled air and deadly heat are a reminder that climate change is already worsening disasters and factoring into new ones. The question is whether that will make the future seem closer and generate new political will for preventing harm, not just reacting to it.

Pew Research Center report by Alec Tyson, Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy of Pew issued on April 18 provides input that can be considered in attempting to answer that question. The report summarizes the results of recent Pew surveys of Americans’ views on climate change.

Selected findings from that report include the following:

  • Climate change is a lower priority for Americans than other national issues. Even though the majority of Americans view it as a major threat, it ranks lower than the economy and health care costs. Climate change ranked 17 out of 21 issues on a January Pew survey.
  • Americans are reluctant to phase out fossil fuels altogether, but younger adults are more open to it. 67% say the country should use a mix of energy resources including oil, coal, and natural gas. Only 49% of those 18–29 years of age say we should use a mix.
  • Democrats and Republicans have grown further apart in the last decade in their assessments of the threat posed by climate change. 54% of Americans overall feel it is a major threat — down slightly from 2020, but higher than 2010. 78% of Democrats view climate change as a major threat now, compared to only 23% of Republicans.
  • Perceptions of local climate impacts vary by political affiliation and whether they think climate change is a serious problem. 61% of Americans say that global change in climate is affecting their local community either a great deal or some. 39% see little or no impact in their own community.

The Pew findings do not create a sense of optimism regarding dealing with the “future effects” of climate change — now or any time soon. Most distressing is that the country is as divided on the climate change issue politically as it is on so many others.

The Pew study was completed before the onset of more severe weather in and around the U.S. as the late spring and early summer climate barrage struck. So there might be a slight increase in Americans’ views of the significance and urgency of the threat posed by climate change currently. Because of the political divide, it is doubtful that the increase will be change-producing.

Whether it will be change-producing is made even more doubtful because of the position of the conservative majority on the Supreme Court on environmental regulation. Over the past two years, the Court hit environmental control and climate change management with a one-two punch. In 2022, it struck out at the Clean Air Act and in 2023 it struck out at Clean Water Act.

On June 30, the last day of its session in 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot put state-level caps on carbon emissions under the 1970 Clean Air Act. The vote on this was 6–3 with the conservative majority and the liberal minority aligning together.

In his New York Times article written the day of the decision, Adam Liptak said that in their dissent the three liberal judges declared that the majority had “stripped the E.P.A. of the power to respond to the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.” Liptak explained that from the majority’s side,

The question in the case, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, turned on the scope of the language of the Clean Air Act. Under it, he wrote, Congress had not clearly given the agency sweeping authority to regulate the energy industry.

Near the end of his piece Liptak points out that the Court had actually intervened in 2016 to stop implementation of the Clean Power Plan proposed by the Obama administration in 2015. He then states, “The court’s action in 2016, followed by changes in the court’s membership that moved it to the right, have made environmental groups wary of what the court might do in cases on climate change.”

Wary those groups should have been in 2022. And they should be even warier in 2023, after the Court’s ruling related to the Clean Water Act in the case of Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Sacketts had bought a piece of property in Idaho to build a home on that had wetlands on it. Three days after the Sacketts had started excavating for their home, the EPA stopped them because they had not gotten a permit to disturb the wetlands on their property.

This case was decided by a vote of 9–0, as the justices all agreed that the Sackets were right and the EPA was wrong in their respective actions. They did not agree, however, in the rationale for their unanimous decision.

Nina Totenberg provided her commentary on this divide on NPR when the court ruled on May 25. As noted in a transcript of her comments, she states:

While the nine justices agreed that the Sacketts should prevail, they divided 5-to-4 as to how far to go in limiting the EPA’s authority.

Writing for the court majority, Justice Samuel Alito said that the navigable waters of the United States regulated by the EPA under the statute do not include many previously regulated wetlands. Rather, he said, the CWA extends to only streams, oceans, rivers, and lakes, and those wetlands with a “continuous surface connection to those bodies.”

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, joined by the court’s three liberal members, disputed Alito’s reading of the statute, noting that since 1977 when the CWA was amended to include adjacent wetlands, eight consecutive presidential administrations, Republican and Democratic, have interpreted the law to cover wetlands that the court has now excluded…

In addition to joining Kavanaugh’s opinion, the court’s liberals signed on to a separate opinion by Justice Elena Kagan. Pointing to the air and water pollution cases, she accused the majority of appointing itself instead of Congress as the national policymaker on the environment.

Justice Kagan may be right that the Court has interjected itself to be the national policy maker on the environment. But the polluters of the environment, and those who prevent it from being restored, are people and organizations that refuse to confront the reality of climate change.

In 1920, shortly after the end of World War I, Robert Frost wrote a famous poem titled “Fire and Ice.” That poem reads as follows:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

Frost’s poem, written more than one century ago, is about how we humans will be responsible for the destruction of our world and each other — unless we find a way to unite to promote a healthier society and environment.

A century later, it’s not just fire and ice, it is water and air. With every year, the world is becoming a more fragile crucible and less salvageable. Tragically, that’s not just our opinion. It’s the informed opinion of scientists from around the globe.

On March 20 of this year, The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the AR6 Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report. The Report is “based on years of work by hundreds of scientists during the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment cycle which began in 2016.”

The UN IPCC’s press release on the Report included the following statements:

In 2018, IPCC highlighted the unprecedented scale of the challenge required to keep warming to 1.5°C. Five years later, that challenge has become even greater due to a continued increase in greenhouse gas emissions. The pace and scale of what has been done so far, and current plans, are insufficient to tackle climate change.

More than a century of burning fossil fuels as well as unequal and unsustainable energy and land use has led to global warming of 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels. This has resulted in more frequent and more intense extreme weather events that have caused increasingly dangerous impacts on nature and people in every region of the world.

The press release also highlighted that

The report, approved during a week-long session in Interlaken, brings in to sharp focus the losses and damages we are already experiencing and will continue into the future, hitting the most vulnerable people and ecosystems especially hard….

“Climate justice is crucial because those who have contributed least to climate change are being disproportionately affected,” said Aditi Mukherji, one of the 93 authors of this Synthesis Report, the closing chapter of the Panel’s sixth assessment.

Given this grim international picture, the United States and its’ citizens look relatively well-off comparatively.

The Brookings Institution is recognized for its expert analysis and a thought leadership in the climate stage arena. On June 1, three Brookings staff (Mannan Donoghoe, Andre M. Perry, Hannah Stephens) posted a commentary on the need for environmental justice in the U.S. Their opening sentences cite U.S. achievements in controlling climate change stating, “On the surface, the history of U.S. environmental policy is one of sweeping success through pivotal regulation. The 1970 Clean Air Act, for example is estimated to have reduced overall pollution by 66.9% and added 1.3 years to the average life expectancy of the average American.”

They proceed to reveal that those climate benefits have not accrued to all U.S. citizens, writing, “Air pollution is about 10 to 15% above average in communities of color, and today more people of color live in ‘fence line communities’ (neighborhoods near high-polluting facilities) than they did 30 years ago.”

Based upon that, Donoghoe, Perry, and Stephens advise that a “one-size fits all policy” is inadequate, and devote the bulk of their commentary to the flaws in the current policy, and what should be done to revise it. They concentrate mostly on last year’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which makes a $369 billion investment in reducing emissions by 2050, nearly $46 billion in environmental justice spending, and $27 billion in GHG (greenhouse gas) emission funding.

After complimenting the Biden administration for “taking progressive civil action seriously, especially in climate justice,” they state that improvements could be made by ensuring racial equity in the allocation of IRA funds and giving states and localities greater control over the use of the funds in order “to create better outcomes for communities of color.”

Megumi Tamara and Joseph W. Kane of Brookings also place an emphasis on the need for more within-state climate planning in a Commentary posted toward the end of April. In their piece, they point out that “…the ultimate responsibility rests in the hands of local leaders who must plan and invest in sustainable infrastructure.”

Tamara and Kane observe that “nearly every major U.S. city has adopted some form of climate action plan.” What is missing and needed, in their estimation, are regional plans that can help overcome the gaps in city plans. This would bring the suburbs and exurbs — which emit much more household emissions in most metropolitan areas — into play.

Brookings, numerous others, and governments at all levels have presented meaningful proposals and plans on climate change. And even though the Pew Research Center data showed that climate change is not a “hot button” issue for most Americans, the same research showed that there is lukewarm support from a majority of Americans for some climate change management.

According to Pew,

  • 69% of Americans support the U.S. becoming carbon neutral by 2050.
  • 66% of U.S. adults say the federal government should encourage domestic production of wind and solar power
  • 75% of Americans support U.S. participation in international efforts to reduce the effects of climate change

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the opinion of the majority may not matter, if it subordinated to and by a political minority and conservative court rulings.

That brings us back to Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice poem. We hope it is not prophetic.

As 21st century citizens, we are the ones who can ensure that it is not. We can do that by getting civically engaged in moving climate change to a position at or near the top of our nation’s and the world’s agenda. If we do not, at some point and at some time in the future, there will be no one left to write poems and no one left to read them.

In closing, with apologies to Robert Frost, we leave you with the following verse:

Water and Air

How might the world end?

Some say in poisoned water

Just bring on the slaughter

Some say in polluted air.

Just sit there and not care

It will not because:

Some will stand and deliver

To save water and the river

They will never ever rescind

The earth, the air, or the wind.