Confronting Climate Change’s Biggest Deniers

Some of the skeptics are also the people with the most power to make a difference. Ignoring or denying the issue isn’t an option.
March 2016
(FlickrCC/NASA HQ)
Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

Almost 25 years ago, when our son was 12, he played soccer for a travel sports team whose games took the players and their families all over the D.C. metropolitan area. It was a big commitment of time, with games every weekend and endless hours in a minivan. But it was fun to watch the Falcons progress, and it was a bonding experience for many of the families. Friendships were formed and idiosyncrasies revealed.

One of the Falcon dads was Lamar Smith, a young congressman from Texas in his third term. Smith and his wife attended games regularly. They were well known and popular. So when, out of the blue, we learned that she had suddenly died -- at a young age -- we were stunned. As more information emerged, however, some of the parents became angry.

Rep. Smith and his wife were Christian Scientists who believed in faith and prayer instead of medical intervention. She was a “practitioner of the faith,” meaning that she helped others deal with illness through prayer. She died in a Christian Science hospice. Her husband’s office refused any comment on her death.

That sad story is worth retelling, because 25 years later the rejection of what most specialists consider settled science continues to define Lamar Smith’s life and career.

As chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, the now-68-year-old congressman is a central figure on national climate policy. He is an unapologetic skeptic about global warming, one who has used his position to subpoena the records and personal emails of scientists in the federal scientific community who have provided increasingly dire warnings of the crisis. Smith is probably the most effective obstacle to creating a national response to climate change.

As with so many things these days, the feds are only one part of whatever response our nation can muster. There is no issue of this gravity whose solution could be more politically, technologically and economically complex. If global warming is anywhere near as threatening as we are being told -- and the most recent evidence indicates that it is even worse than that -- then any hope of an effective response must involve not just nations or central governments, but regions, provinces, states, cities, counties and every unit of government down to the neighborhood level. It also will not be confined to government, but must rely heavily on the private and nonprofit sectors.

The highly publicized international agreement on climate change achieved in Paris at the end of last year, widely described as more aspirational than realistic, still marked a turning point in efforts to secure the cooperation of 187 countries.  Even if there is no real mechanism for enforcement, it will be hard for the major players -- the U.S., China and Europe -- to ignore their commitment. Last summer, the Obama administration underlined its own determination to act with the announcement of its Clean Power Plan, which takes direct aim at coal-fired power plants, requiring states to cut carbon pollution by almost a third within the next 15 years.

It will be up to the states to devise their own plans for complying with the new rules -- if they are allowed to take effect. Even before the administration’s initiative was announced, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wrote all 50 governors asking them to ignore it. By the time it was released, 14 states already had filed suit to block it. A federal appeals court ruled against the state challenge in January, but the program remains on hold pending further court action.

So the federal government is no sure bet. Some states, like California, will be pathfinders, others obstacles. Localities, as usual, offer sparks of innovation. But hope is not confined to the public sector: Both in the corporate and financial communities, major players are peeling away from the ranks of deniers. Exxon Mobil executives have made it clear they believe the threat is real and that the best solution would be a well-crafted carbon tax. Google, BP, Facebook, Yahoo and Northrop Grumman have parted ways with the American Legislative Exchange Council, the powerful state-level corporate lobby that opposes environmental action. General Mills pledged to cut carbon emissions from its supply chain by 28 percent in the next decade. Indeed, it appears that corporations and the people who finance them want to invest in the future. 2015 set a new record for global investment in alternative energy, at a time when fossil fuel prices were sagging.

This past year was our country’s warmest on record, surpassing last year’s mark. It’s a record that we must try to stop breaking, Lamar Smith’s continued denial notwithstanding.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com