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Menopausal Mother Nature

News about Climate Change and our Planet


Can Biden’s climate bill undo the fossil fuel industry’s decades of harm?

The scientists’ warning to the US president on climate crisis was stark: the world’s countries were conducting a vast, dangerous experiment through their enormous release of planet-heating emissions, which threaten to be “deleterious from the point of view of human beings”. Some sort of remedial action was needed, they urged.

This official alert was issued not to Joe Biden, who is poised to sign America’s first ever major legislation designed to tackle the climate crisis, but in a report given to his presidential predecessor Lyndon Johnson in 1965, a year when the now 79-year-old Biden was still in college.

That it has taken nearly six decades for the US to tackle global heating in a significant way, despite being responsible for a quarter of all emissions that have heated the planet during modern civilization, is indicative of a lengthy climate war. Pernicious misinformation of the fossil fuel industry, cynicism and bungled political maneuvering have stymied any sort of action to avert catastrophic heatwaves, floods, drought and wildfires.

If on Friday, as expected, the House of Representatives assents to the landmark $370bn in climate spending hashed out in the US Senate and sends it for Biden’s signature, it will be a watershed moment in a saga that can be measured in whole careers and lifetimes.

Al Gore was a fresh-faced 33-year-old congressman from Tennessee when, in 1981, he organized an obscure hearing with fellow lawmakers to hear evidence on the greenhouse effect from Roger Revelle, his former professor at Harvard and one of the scientists who had cautioned Johnson 16 years earlier of a looming climate disaster.

Gore is now 74, a former US vice-president and veteran climate advocate whose increasingly urgent warnings on the issue won him the Nobel peace prize when Greta Thunberg was barely four years old. “I never imagined I would end up devoting my life to this,” Gore said.

Al Gore speaks in front of a backdrop of the United Nations Climate Change summit.
Al Gore has been speaking out on the effects of global heating for 40 years. ‘I never imagined I would end up devoting my life to this,’ he said. Photograph: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

“I thought, naively in retrospect, that when the facts were laid out so clearly we would be able to move much more quickly. I did not anticipate the fossil fuel industry would spend billions of dollars on an industrial scale program of lying and deception to prevent the body politic acting in a rational way. But here we are, we finally passed that threshold.”

Gore considers the bill, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, as a “critical turning point in our struggle to confront the climate crisis” that will supercharge deployment of renewable energy such as wind and solar and push fossil fuels towards irrelevancy.

Many current Democratic lawmakers, who narrowly passed the bill through the Senate, also felt the weight of the moment, with many of them wearing the warming stripes colors showing the global heating trend. Some burst into tears as the legislation squeaked home on Sunday.

“We’ve been fighting for this for decades, now I can look my kids in the eye and say we’re really doing something about climate,” said Brian Schatz, a senator from Hawaii and one of the tearful. “The Senate was where climate bills went to die and now it’s where the biggest climate action by any government ever has been taken.”

The list of previous failures is lengthy. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House, only for Ronald Reagan to rip them down. Bill Clinton attempted a new tax on pollutants only for a sharp backlash from industry to see the effort die. The US, under George W Bush’s presidency, declined to join the 1997 Kyoto climate accords and then, when Barack Obama was in the White House, botched climate legislation in 2009 despite strong Democratic majorities in Congress.

Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, torched most of the modest measures in place to curb planet-heating gases and campaigned wearing a coalminer’s helmet. “I didn’t doubt we’d get there but there were times when the struggle became harder than I thought it would be, such as when Trump was elected,” Gore said.

Climate change has inflicted increasingly severe wounds on Americans as their politicians have floundered or dissembled. Enormous wildfires are now a year-round threat to California, with the US west in the grip of possibly its worst drought in 12 centuries. Extreme rainfall now routinely drowns basements in New York, Appalachian towns, and Las Vegas casinos. The poorest fare worst from the roasting heatwaves and the continued air pollution from power plants, cars and trucks.

James Hansen, the Nasa scientist, told Congress in a landmark 1988 hearing that “it is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here” and yet the escalating subsequent warnings appeared to make little difference. Shortly before a Senate deal was brokered, the climate scientist Drew Shindell said that the lack of action made him “want to scream” and that “I keep wondering what’s the point of producing all the science” if it’s only to be ignored.

Activists carry a sign shaped like a red alarm clock that reads ‘Wake up Fed! Stop funding fossil fuels’.
Activists attend a rally and march on Earth Day in Washington DC. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

Much of the blame for this has been laid on the fossil fuel industry, which has known for decades the disastrous consequences of its business model only to fund an extensive network of operations that concealed this information and sought to sow doubt among the public over the science.

“These forces have been far more active and effective in the United States than in other countries,” said Naomi Oreskes, an American historian of science who has written on the false information spread by industry on climate crisis.

“For more than 20 years, American public opinion has been heavily influenced by the ‘merchants of doubt’, who sold disinformation designed to make people think that the science regarding climate change was far more uncertain than it actually was.”

Industry lobbying and generous donations have ensured that the Republican party has fallen almost entirely in line with the demands of major oil and gas companies. As recently as 2008, a Republican running for president, John McCain, had a recognizable climate plan but the issue is now close to party heresy, despite rising concern among all Americans, including Republican voters, about climate-induced disasters.

The strategy of misinformation “worked even more than its originators imagined”, Oreskes said, noting that every single Republican senator voted against the Inflation Reduction Act. Mitch McConnell, the GOP Senate leader, lambasted the bill as “Green New Deal nonsense” out of step with Americans’ priorities, even as much of his home state of Kentucky lay underwater from its worst flooding on record, killing dozens and inundating whole towns.

The continued, staunch opposition to any meaningful climate action by Republicans means the climate wars in American politics are not likely to draw to a close anytime soon. But climate advocates hope the gathering pace of renewable energy and electric car adoption will soon be unstoppable, regardless of any attempted backsliding if Republicans regain power.

The question will be how much damage to a livable climate will be done in the meantime. The climate bill is expected to help slash the emissions of the US, the world’s second largest carbon polluter, by about 40% this decade, which should prod other countries to do more. Crucial, upcoming UN climate talks in Egypt suddenly look a more welcoming prospect for the American delegation.

“In the prior administration, I think the rest of the world lost faith in the United States in terms of our commitment to climate,” said Gina McCarthy, Biden’s top climate adviser. “This doesn’t just restore that faith in the United States, but it creates an opportunity zone that other countries can start thinking about.”

But almost every country, including the US, is still not doing enough, quickly enough, to head off the prospect of catastrophic global heating. The climate wars helped enrich fossil fuel corporations but cost precious time that the new climate bill does not claw back.

“It was a celebratory and joyful moment when the legislation finally passed but we can’t let this be a once in a lifetime moment,” Gore said. “The path to net zero (emissions) requires us to move forward and a lot of the hard work lies ahead.”

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