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Blair Horner: More Bad News And Dirty Politics On Global Warming

It is a well-established fact that the planet is heating up.  2014 was the hottest year on record and last week, the first prediction of 2015 came out – it wasn’t good news. 

According to the scientists at the federal government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the summer months of June, July and August in the Northern Hemisphere saw its highest globally averaged temperature since records began in 1880.  Some have said that it may have been the hottest summer on the planet in over 4,000 years.

NOAA also said record heat was reported across northeastern Africa stretching into the Middle East, part of southeastern Asia, most of the northern half of South America, and parts of central and eastern North America.

That extended heat wave has heated the oceans and has contributed to the large El Niño that powered the hurricane that ravaged the Mexican coast over the weekend and is drenching the south. 

The heating up of the planet is turbocharged by the dramatic increases in carbon dioxide generated by human activity.  According to scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Earth is experiencing carbon dioxide levels not seen since prehistoric times and has never seen carbon dioxide levels increase at such a rapid rate.

The NASA scientists predicted that these increases in carbon dioxide will cause “real, significant changes in the Earth system now, not in some distant future climate, and will continue to be felt for centuries to come. We can study these impacts to better understand the way the Earth will respond to future changes, but unless serious actions are taken immediately, we risk the next threshold being a point of no return in mankind's unintended global-scale geoengineering experiment.”

NASA found that the “global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the primary driver of recent climate change – has reached 400 parts per million for the first time in recorded history.”

What is a critical driver in these increases in carbon dioxide?  The burning of fossil fuels.  And the reason that so little is happening to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is that the fossil fuel industry, (made up of oil, gas and coal companies) has done all it can to undermine the science documenting global warming.

In a recent series of articles in the Los Angeles Times, internal documents show that oil company giant Exxon – which once was considered a pioneer in climate change research – began in the 1990s to fund a campaign that questioned climate change.

The reason, according to the reporting of the LA Times, was that Exxon feared that there might emerge a growing public consensus that would lead to governmental policies that would hurt the company’s finances.  Essentially, Exxon decided to put its corporate profits ahead of scientific research that showed that global warming would hurt the public’s health.

And the oil giant decided to start funding groups that would combat proposals to reduce greenhouse gases.  According to the LA Times, Exxon joined an association of companies from industries linked to fossil fuels, to aggressively fight potential climate change regulations.  The plan was to spend millions of dollars on a disinformation campaign emphasizing scientific uncertainty and underscoring the negative economic impact of such laws on consumers.

Their effort was so successful that in 1997, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify a U.N. treaty committing states to reduce greenhouse gases because restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions “could result in serious harm to the United States economy” — an argument Exxon used repeatedly in its public-relations campaign.

For years, the efforts by the oil, gas and coal companies were successful: significant percentages of Americans did not believe that global warming was real or that human activity was the driving force behind it.  As a result, policies to reduce greenhouse gases were stymied – and the planet heated up.  As the planet has heated up, weather patterns have begun to change and so has public opinion.  Those changes have affected voters in each party.

A recent poll of voters found that a “majority of Republicans (56 percent) now believe that there is solid evidence of global warming, up from 47 percent a year ago, joining solid majorities of Democrats (79 percent) and Independents (69 percent).”  “Americans who believe there is evidence of global warming are also increasingly confident in their belief, with a record 65 percent saying they are ‘very confident’ in their appraisal.”

Those beliefs have not, as yet, shown up in the public policies of the Congress.  The political strategies of the oil, gas and coal companies are still paying off.  The big question facing the nation is whether public policies will catch up to public opinion – and will they do so before it is too late.  

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.  

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