This was a truly dark week in American history. The President of the United States ignored the advice of the world’s scientific experts and decided to pull the nation out of the global climate agreement hammered out in Paris in 2015. Among the community of nations, only worn-torn Syria and Nicaragua—which believes it does not go far enough to combat climate change—have refused to sign the accord.
While the Paris Agreement was far from perfect, it reflected a worldwide consensus that recognized the science: Climate change is real and global warming is the result of human activities, primarily the burning of coal, oil and gas.
The Trump Administration’s decision, with the backing of the Republican Congress, ignores that science and instead allows the acceleration of global warming, which will lead to devastating consequences.
Over the past 150 years, the industrialized world has been able to use fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) to grow and power its societies. Those nations, now joined by China and other emerging nations, are generating too much greenhouse gas emissions for the planet to absorb, thus leading to the greenhouse effect that is trapping the gases and heating up the planet.
While global warming is a threat to all of civilization, the most affluent industrialized nations have the ability to mitigate some of the worst consequences. Yet the poorest nations, those least responsible for generating greenhouse gases, are the ones who will suffer the most.
For example, experts predict that global sea levels could rise more than three feet by 2100. Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorest nations and much of its land is at or below sea level. It’s already being impacted by a warming planet: As a result of last week’s cyclone, Bangladesh was attempting to evacuate a million residents to escape deadly flooding. But Bangladesh generates only a tiny fraction of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate disasters aren’t just a local problem: They destabilize the globe, which is why the U.S. Department of Defense and the Secretary of State have viewed global heating as a pressing national security issue.
In a rational political system, our nation would act. Congress would hold hearings, introduce legislation and advance proposals to help curb the impact our nation has on the world’s climate.
But as evidenced by the Trump Administration’s decision, our national political system is anything but rational. Too many of the nation’s political elite simply don’t believe in the fact that the planet is heating up, and many more ignore the evidence that humans are primarily responsible.
Because of the political clout and disinformation efforts by the oil, coal and gas lobbies. The fossil fuel industry has been using its money and political muscle to foster an atmosphere of doubt around the science of climate change. It is their public relations and political campaigns that have allowed it to have a stranglehold over national policies.
The oil and gas industry campaigns have now impacted the world. As a result, millions will suffer from disease, starvation, and violence. And those consequences will be accelerated by the decisions of the US Government.
But the states can act. The Cuomo Administration took a first step by announcing that it was joining with California and the state of Washington to continue to adhere to the Paris Agreement. Those three states constitute a significant percentage of the American economy. More states and localities are likely to join that effort.
However, to be successful, the power of the oil, gas and coal industry must be broken. A key step will be uncovering the deceptions behind their public relations efforts.
In 2015, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced an investigation into ExxonMobil over whether it misled investors and the public about the reality of climate change. His investigation came shortly after media reports revealed that, as early as the 1970s, top executives at ExxonMobil were well informed—by their own research—about the climate risks resulting from the use of their products. Yet, instead of issuing warnings, the company reportedly spent decades investing in major disinformation campaigns to sow doubt about those risks and undermine the urgency of policy action. Schneiderman’s investigation must be accelerated.
The United States has emitted more planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other country. Thanks to the Trump Administration and the Congress, it is taking the immoral and disastrous step of walking back a promise to lower emissions. That decision can be reversed, but only when the power of the oil, gas and coal industries is broken.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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