by Mark Hertsgaard
My daughter, age five, is a member of Generation Hot. Chances are, your youngster is too, as is every child on earth born after June 23, 1988. These two billion young people will spend the rest of their lives coping with the hottest, most volatile climate that civilization has ever known – a crisis their elders helped create.
I date the start of Generation Hot to summer 1988 because that’s when humanity was put on notice that greenhouse gas emissions were raising planetary temperatures, and that if emissions weren’t reduced humanity’s survival would be endangered. The warning came in NASA scientist James Hansen’s U.S. Senate testimony. When the New York Times printed the news on page 1, global warming became a household phrase the world over.
Last week, I went to Capitol Hill with members of Generation Hot (and the Sierra Club, our nation’s largest grassroots environmental group) to confront the politicians whose denials and delay have done so much to land Generation Hot in this predicament.
We asked them why my daughter, and the two billion members of Generation Hot, must suffer because Republicans in Congress refuse to accept what every major scientific organization on earth, including our own National Academy of Sciences, has accepted: that man-made climate change is happening now and extremely dangerous.
Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who famously called climate change “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” told our group that “the science is mixed” and that his handful of scientists know better than our thousands. Frank Maisano, a public relations consultant for big energy companies, told us that “the science doesn’t matter,” what matters is what’s politically feasible.
“The science does matter,” responded Caroline Selle, a member of our group who works for the Energy Action Coalition. “We face a climate catastrophe that will define our generation and the future of our country, and the solutions to this crisis will create jobs and improve public health. So why aren’t we acting? Unfortunately, the answer is simple: Capitol Hill is swarming with ‘climate cranks’ – politicians willing to trade our future for their own political gain.”
It’s not political partisanship but journalistic accuracy that compels me to report that the majority of Washington climate cranks are Republicans. Denial of man-made climate change became a GOP litmus test issue during the 2010 midterm elections; not a single new Republican Member of Congress now says that they accept human activities are dangerously overheating the planet.
The Republicans stand utterly alone. The GOP is now the only major political party on earth to still reject mainstream climate science. None of the right-of-center parties now heading the governments of our European allies in Britain, Germany, or France has questioned the validity of climate science for more than a decade; they may argue which policies are best for addressing the problem, but not one challenges the science. Indeed, these parties’ climate policies are far more aggressive than those of U.S. Democrats, much less Republicans.
As a father, it infuriates me that Dr. Hansen’s 1988 warning, and countless subsequent warnings, have gone unheeded. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, former chief climate adviser to the conservative government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, agrees. “This was a crime,” he told me, referring to Washington’s failure to act against global warming.
But the wrong people are being punished for that crime. While climate change deniers sit comfortably in the seats of U.S. government and corporate power, the world’s youth are condemned to cope with harsher heat waves, stronger storms, deeper droughts, and sea level rise, along with the resulting food shortages, eco-refugees, insurrections and wars, that our own U.S. military foresees if global warming worsens.
Our collective failure to act sooner means we now face a double imperative in the climate fight: we must halt and reverse global warming even as we install protections against harsh climate impacts that, alas, are unavoidable in coming years.
As I report in my new book, HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, the somewhat good news is that there are practical solutions to the challenges ahead. But that won’t matter if we don’t break the climate deniers’ grip on government policy.
I remain stubbornly hopeful about all this, especially when I see how fiercely the young people of Generation Hot will fight. Again, Caroline Selle: “Our future is at stake, and our position is non-negotiable. We need strong climate legislation based on the facts, not the politics, and we need it soon. And we are willing to stand together again and again until our message gets through.”
Mark Hertsgaard (markhertsgaard.com), the environment correspondent for The Nation, has authored six books, including Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. To comment on this column go to www.blueridgepress.com. © BRP 2011
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