A pessimist could be forgiven for thinking the treadmill of climate denial and inaction is endless. For at least 50 years, senior oil company executives have known that burning their product was destabilizing our climate. President Lyndon Johnson called on Congress in 1965 to pass legislation to curb carbon dioxide pollution, and Congress enacted that law—the Clean Air Act—in 1970. Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned Richard Nixon, and every subsequent president has had his Jeremiah to sound the alarm. We made steps forward under Clinton and Obama only to suffer sharp reversals under the second Bush and—sharpest of all—Trump.
But even at this late hour, I tend toward hope that this cycle is about to change. Why? Because in 1965, 1995, and even 2015, climate change seemed still off in the future, theoretical, something our worst politicians could deny altogether, and our best ones could leave for later. No longer.
Climate change is here and now. And palpably getting worse. That is rapidly changing how Americans think about it.
The shift from “future problem” to “now crisis” is being fueled by blockbuster scientific reports and blockbuster real-world catastrophes.
In October millions of Americans were rocked by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s devastating report on the consequences of letting global temperatures rise above 1.5° C (2.7° F). And now we’re absorbing the litany of calamities that await communities in every part of our country, laid out last Friday in the National Climate Assessment prepared by top federal scientists and national experts. The Trump administration’s climate deniers hoped to bury this report in our post-Thanksgiving tryptophan haze, but millions of Americans are paying attention.
And they’re paying attention to the catastrophic wildfires and hurricanes that have pounded California, North Carolina, and Florida this fall, on top of Texas and Puerto Rico last year. 53 killed by Hurricane Florence and 36 by Hurricane Mitchell. 85, to date, killed by the California fires. Nearly 3000 dead in Puerto Rico in Hurricane Maria’s aftermath last year.
The one-two punch of irrefutable science and irrefutable experience has raised the urgency of climate action in all voters and in both parties.
The mid-terms have brought a new crop of leaders to the House of Representatives, governors mansions, and state houses who campaigned on clean energy and climate change. The U.S. Climate Alliance will likely expand from 17 governors to 25 or more, representing states accounting for the bulk of America’s economy. State and city leaders will advance bold policies to decarbonize our electricity and transportation systems.
Changing Washington will take a bit longer—but it will go faster than we thought. President Trump won’t change. He’ll almost surely exit office without ever taking a briefing from climate scientists. With his "natural instinct for science," he’ll continue to deny and lie on climate, like so many other topics. The president says the climate "goes up and down" and, like that, some foolish senator will say it "ebbs and flows." The coal lobbyists and ideologues he’s put into power at EPA and other agencies will keep rolling back climate and clean energy regulations—though many of those moves are destined to fail when we see them in court.
But the mid-term elections show a decisive rejection of Trumpism. The House’s new Democratic leaders—from veterans to freshman—will push ambitious plans to transition America to clean energy and bring carbon pollution to zero—or even below zero, drawing carbon out of the air—in the next few decades.
Whether Trump’s party will change remains to be seen. But as many GOP representatives found out, the old formula doesn’t work in the suburbs anymore. The Senate map and gerrymandering won’t help Republicans out of their demographic jam. On climate, like other issues, their party must respond or wither away.
In this Congress, while advancing big ideas, leaders also have a chance to make progress on more modest but crucial building blocks. A growing number of GOP politicians see the rising economic and political force in clean energy. With clean energy job creation booming, climate policies are not so easy to dismiss as “job-killing” anymore. Will we see them embrace policies to modernize the grid, promote renewables and efficiency, curb methane waste and pollution, move to next-generation refrigerants? Measures like that could move in the House, and even be embraced in the Senate, if both parties read the political handwriting on the wall.
Almost certainly, climate change will play bigger in the 2020 election. Unfortunately, the here-and-now pounding of climate impacts will continue, as the IPCC and National Climate Assessment foretell. More Americans will be affected, many grievously. And more Americans will see and feel clean energy’s vital role in our economic future.
When the next president takes office, he or she will find the American people ready for—and ready to demand—the ambitious transition to the clean energy and a low-carbon future that our survival depends on.