Can young voters beat back climate change deniers?

We love our iPhones; they’re the result of science. We fly on planes, relying on the underlying science. Our modern society is shaped by science. So why, when 97 percent of scientists concur that the planet is threatened by climate change, and that human beings contribute to the problem, has President Trump called global warming a “hoax,” doubting human impact. To make things worse, on Sixty Minutes, he claimed that scientific evidence should be discounted because scientists “have a political agenda.” As many as 55 percent of Americans seem to agree with him, doubting the scientists.  Could it be that admitting we face a serious threat in our lifetime raises the specter of unpleasant (read: government regulations), lifestyle changes and costly solutions?

Earlier this month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described the situation as dire.  The message: we’re running out of time.  We have two decades to take significant action. The consequences of failure include sea level rise displacing millions of people, severe droughts, declining crop yields, diminution of marine fisheries, dying off of coral reefs and a variety of other dislocations.

On what might be a bright side, according to a March Gallup poll, the 45 percent of Americans who think that global warming is an immediate serious threat is the highest percentage since the company started asking the question more than 20 years ago. Two different university polls put that percentage as high as 58 percent.  But that movement doesn’t make consensus on action any more likely. Sadly, the issue has become increasingly polarized, with 69 percent of Republicans viewing global warming skeptically and just four percent of Democrats thinking the threat is exaggerated.   

Illinois Cong. Bill Foster

Even if the House and Senate were to go Democratic in November, don’t look for comprehensive solutions to be enacted. Illinois Congressman Bill Foster, a proton physicist/businessman and the only member of the House with a doctorate in science, warns that during the next two years, with Trump still wielding veto power, the battle against global warming will be fought in the courts, with lawsuits against Trump rollbacks of Obama administration policies by the Environmental Protection Agency.  Speaking last week in Brookline, MA, Foster said, “If we can keep the EPA from going forward, it’s the most we can hope for.”  The courts, notably the Supreme Court,  can’t be depended upon however as a backstop. Consider new Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Appeals Court ruling upholding a lower court decision gutting protections against hydrofluorocarbons.

While the clock is ticking, we might only get some incremental changes: action around energy efficiency, more support for clean energy technology (there are more jobs there than in the coal industry), modernizing the energy grid and providing more infrastructure for electric vehicles.  What could also help is that a Democratic majority in the House would at least hold hearings on big-picture proposals like some sort of carbon tax.  They can also reshape the debate by changing the language of global warming, redefining the message in  economic and public health terms.  Crop failure, hurricane damage, asthma, allergies, disease and heatstroke, after all, happen from Kansas to Florida and beyond. The threat is right here, not way off in the Arctic and Antarctic, where the polar ice caps are melting and increases of 1.5 degrees in temperature sound insignificant to people willfully unaware of the underlying science.

In many states, early voting has begun. Today’s news coverage featured college students waiting in line to cast their ballots and speaking of climate change as one of their top issues. But it’s the whole 18-35 year-old cohort who have the most at stake when it comes to climate change. The fate of our planet could well be determined by what they do or fail to do between now and November 6.

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