Signs of Climate Hope from Congress. Wait, What?

As Trump pulls out of Paris—and the world sighs in disgust—a bipartisan House caucus may be our last, best hope for taking the politics out of climate policy.

June 02, 2017

Eric B. Walker/Flickr

During his recent trip to Europe, President Trump heard firsthand from other major world leaders why withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement was a bad idea. At home, similar arguments have been made by his secretary of state, his secretary of energy, top business executives, his daughter, and many others whose informed opinion he presumably values.

So naturally, he’s chosen to pull out of the climate treaty.

This president has an impeccable ability to make wrong decisions at crucial junctures, and he is singular among American presidents in the way he wears his fatuousness as a perverse badge of pride. Now that he’s made the U.S. withdrawal official, we can almost certainly expect partisan political disagreement over climate change to intensify—which, according to people who study such things, had actually been dying down up to this point.

Meanwhile, as the president basks in his benightedness, those of us who accept climate science are facing an error of our own. To wit: we were wrong about sea level rise. Our oceans aren’t encroaching on coastlines at a rate of about half an inch every decade, as many scientists had previously thought.

They’re actually rising almost three times as fast.

According to a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the oceans rose at a rate of slightly less than half an inch per decade for most of the 20th century. But since 1993, new data reveal, they’ve been rising 1.22 inches every ten years—an acceleration that greatly startled the study’s authors as well as other members of the scientific community.

In a different world—one where we weren’t careening daily from one political crisis or scandal to the next—this would be the biggest story out there. Everyone would be talking about our rising seas, and how the most recent analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects global sea level rise by the end of the century to be anywhere from a foot to just above eight feet. The latter scenario would effectively turn the streets of Lower Manhattan into a system of canals like Venice’s. 

But even if most of America is unfortunately (if understandably) distracted at the moment, there’s one part of the country where sea level rise is a regular topic of discussion. In southern Florida, potentially devastating sea level rise isn’t something that might happen, someday. It’s something that is happening, right now.

In a disturbing reversal of how municipal drainage systems are supposed to work, Florida’s southern coastal cities routinely flood during seasonal high tides, as ocean water flows up through drainage pipes and cascades into the streets. Seawater is also increasingly contaminating drinking-water wells. And real estate and tourism—which together constitute the lifeblood of the local economy—are taking direct hits as investors grow nervous about the region’s future.

Last year, two Florida-based members of the U.S. House of Representatives—Carlos Curbelo, a Republican, and Ted Deutch, a Democrat—got together after listening to their constituents’ concerns and formed an unusual bipartisan group called the Climate Solutions Caucus. Funny how the threat of climate change–fueled disaster has a way of focusing one’s mind.

Caucus members believe that the time has finally come to stop arguing about whether climate change exists and, instead, to band together to mitigate its consequences. Their formal mission statement has them working “to educate members on economically viable options to reduce climate risk and protect our nation’s economy, security, infrastructure, agriculture, water supply and public safety.”

What’s most impressive about the Climate Solutions Caucus is how seriously it takes the idea of consensus. As of this writing, the group comprises 40 members and is split perfectly evenly between both political parties. As co-founder Deutch has put it in interviews, “If you want to join as a Democrat, you have to bring along a Republican.” Maintaining this partisan balance is key to the group’s effectiveness and to its steady growth; Curbelo and Deutch appreciate how important it is—not just for their caucus, but for the larger fight against climate change—that their work be seen as bipartisan and collaborative.

Amid the Trump presidency, the mere existence of a rapidly expanding, bipartisan climate caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives feels something like a well-timed miracle. If ever there was a moment for morally serious Republicans to reach across the aisle and affirm, once and for all, that climate change isn’t a political issue but a planetary one, this is the moment. The Climate Solutions Caucus has been building real momentum in the year since it was founded; now it needs to make a quantum leap by significantly growing in both membership and influence. Every new Republican who joins its ranks will serve as a rejoinder to President Trump’s arrogant shortsightedness and a much-needed sign to Americans—and to citizens and governments across the globe—that the United States hasn’t lost its collective mind.

Because right now, you can be sure that many folks, at home and abroad, are wondering if that’s the case.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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