The Post-Gazette on the Climate Crisis

By October 21, 2020 No Comments

By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (P-G) claimed in an October 14th climate editorial that “Environmentalists perennially exaggerate the problems, while Republicans, at least since 2012, have belittled them.” The P-G wildly claims, “By their guiding principles, namely a commitment to free-market solutions over heavy-handed regulation, conservatives are in a position to present America with a much more viable approach to addressing climate change than the Green New Deal.” As a lifelong environmentalist, former CEO of several environmental and conservation organizations, and author of two books addressing the climate crisis, I must respond to this outrageous charge and baseless claim.

First, it is hard for environmentalists to exaggerate the dangers of climate change. Carbon dioxide levels are now at 410.89 parts per million compared to 281 ppm preindustrial. These heat-trapping levels have not been seen on Earth for over three million years, according to the most detailed reconstruction of the Earth’s climate by researchers at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research published in Science Advances. We are rolling back the climate system to the Mid-Pliocene when the average global temperatures were between 3.6 and 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than preindustrial levels. 

Ninety-three percent of the excess heat of climate change ends up in our oceans, causing enormous evaporative increases, higher humidity, more intense hurricanes, and violent storms causing deadly storm surges, destructive floods, and landslide risks. During the Mid-Pliocene, the Arctic Sea was free of ice, and much of the Greenland ice sheet melted. Sea levels were higher by between 13 and 37 meters. It will take decades for sea-levels to reach these levels again. However, there is little chance the glacial melt on Greenland and Antarctica coupled with the oceans’ thermal expansion can be reversed unless we act boldly to end carbon pollution, plant a trillion trees, and manage soils to capture carbon.

We are also witnessing record-breaking destructive “climate” fires in twelve western states that have killed at least 35, destroyed communities, and burned more than four-million acres in California alone. Still burning, Colorado fires continue to set new records for acres consumed.

Second, we have known that climate change is a severe threat, but our leaders have long ignored the warnings. Rachael Carson wrote the best-selling book “The Sea Around Us” in 1950, including a chapter she called “The Global Thermostat.” While working at the Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson determined that fish populations were shifting poleward worldwide. She wrote, “now in our own lifetime we are witnessing a startling alteration of climate…” While her book was on the bestseller list for 84 weeks. Oil company scientists confirmed her warnings in the early ’60s. Still, for decades, big oil executives lied about the dangers inherent in relying on fossil fuels and were instrumental in killing market-based solutions.

During the summer of 1979, I summarized available research and wrote an article for Pennsylvania Forests analyzing the published science.  I declared, “acid precipitation (was) one of the two most critical environmental problems.” The other was the buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide with its long-term potential for profound climatic alteration and warning that “atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by 12% since 1850.” Pennsylvania Republican Senator John Heinz read my article and entered it into the Congressional Record. Heinz testified before the National Commission on Air Quality. Heinz was a co-sponsor with Senator Tim Wirth, a Democrat from Colorado, of the market-based law that ended acid rain as a significant threat. 

My point: environmentalists did not “perennially exaggerate” acid rain, air or water pollution, loss of biodiversity, or climate change. As a former elected Republican committee member and a lifelong environmentalist, I have not changed. The Republican Party that Senator Heinz was once a leading voice no longer exists. 

We are now witnessing a deliberate effort to trash science when it conflicts with the Republican political agenda. In 2005, Chris Mooney wrote a prescient book entitled The Republican War on Science. Mooney detailed how, for some years, the Republican Party has deliberately fostered “flagrant misrepresentations (that) goes far beyond mere dishonesty. It demonstrates a gross disregard for the welfare of the American public…”

The Post-Gazette has downplayed the dangers of the climate crisis and mocked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the Puerto Rican-American lawmaker that Trump and his followers constantly attack. Reflective of her generation, AOC is rightfully anxious about the future and is one of the Green New Deal’s prime sponsors. The P-G claims, “A strong case can be made that anyone who makes a statement so divorced from science and reality is not fit for office, but Ms. Ocasio-Cortez simply inherited a long tradition of leftist climate alarmism.”

For whatever perceived failings she may have, AOC understands something that the P-G editorial ignores. We need to act fast to avoid a “significant release of methane due to melting of the vast deposits trapped by permafrost and in Arctic clathrates” that scientists have long warned. The Green New Deal is an aggressive climate platform needed now since the fossil fuel industry, and dark money forces have caused our government to dilly-dally for decades. We now have a small and closing window of time to end carbon pollution before we pierce the dangerous thresholds.  Runaway warming can accelerate beyond our reach, triggering nature to give up its carbon stores.  In a climate crisis, nature bats last and carries a mean bat. Burning forests and the rapid decomposition of terrestrial biomass coupled with catastrophic releases of methane hydrate from ocean sediments and tundra soils, nature responds to high temperatures by giving off methane and carbon dioxide. 

Calling the science-based, urgent warnings “the apocalyptic rhetoric from the left…” and suggesting that conservatives relying on free-marketing solutions can solve the climate crisis, the P-G editorial is dangerously out of touch with the legislative history. The hollow claim that “conservatives are in a position to present America with a much more viable approach to addressing climate change than the Green New Deal” is a clueless suggestion. 

Promoting a conservative free-market solution would be laughable if the risks were not so severe. Market-based solutions have been repeatedly blocked for more than 20 years. In 1997, the Senate pre-empted the market-based Kyoto Protocol modeled after the successful Heinz-Wirth Acid Rain program stating that the United States should not enter into any international climate agreement. In 2003, Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman sponsored the first Climate Stewardship Act that was defeated in the U.S. Senate by 55 votes to 43. A second bipartisan market-based bill died in the Senate in 2007. During the Obama years, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 was the third attempt at a market-based approach. It passed the House but was blocked in the Senate despite Senator John Kerry’s tireless efforts. 

Conservatives in both the Pennsylvania House and Senate passed House Bill 2025 recently to block Pennsylvania from joining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Governor Wolf wisely vetoed the bill aimed at preventing Pennsylvania from entering a successful 10-state market-based approach to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Conservatives in the state legislature and in Congress believe in a free-market approach, which to them means they will do nothing to stop climate change.

Nature Is fast approaching a climate cliff. Avoiding it can create 25 million good-paying jobs by cutting emissions by 85% in 15 years, according to an assessment made by Rewiring America that started with the question of “what is technologically necessary?” to achieve the scientifically established targets. While Joe Biden is not proposing the Green New Deal, he has proposed an appropriate populist approach to curbing the climate crisis that promises to move us in the right direction while creating five million American jobs.

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