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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: President Trump Fiddles While The Earth Burns

In the 1970s, scientists at major oil companies identified a growing threat – that the burning of oil, coal and gas was contributing to a rapid warming of the planet and that left unaddressed, the existence of civilization was at risk.

Instead of warning the world of this threat, the oil industry chose instead to shutter its global warming research and use its wealth to tell the public that in fact the opposite was true.  They were so successful that even today well-meaning Americans think that the science of global warming is still under debate.  The industry’s efforts were so successful that recently a well-respected journalist told me that he didn’t “believe” that global warming is largely the result of human activities.

It’s not a belief.  It’s a fact.

The Trump Administration is so much more interested in “weaponizing” governmental decision-making in its ongoing battle with its political opponents that it has done all it can to destroy the nation’s efforts to tackle the terrifying threat of global warming.

In August of 2017, the Trump Administration closed the research work of the Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment.  This group had been charged with providing the national government with scientific advice on how to respond to the increasing possibility of climate catastrophe resulting from global warming.

Like the oil companies of the 1970s, the Trump Administration was more interested in tending to the needs of oil, coal and gas companies than it was to learning from the overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming and assessing what the nation needs to do to mitigate this looming disaster.

The story could have ended there, but New York Governor Cuomo, Columbia University and the American Meteorological Society reconvened the panel, now known as the Science for Climate Action Network.  Last week the panel issued a report arguing that Americans are now put at risk as the result of a warming planet and the failure of the nation to act.

The panel stated that the world is experiencing the impacts of climate changes and that it’s only going to get worse.  The panel cited the work of the fourth National Climate Assessment released in November of last year.  The Assessment, the work of 13 U.S. government agencies, argued that individuals will be harmed by the effects of global warming.  President Trump said that he didn’t “believe” the report.

According to the panel, unless the nation organizes itself to act, it is estimated that the U.S. economy will lose $500 billion a year from crop damage, lost labor, and extreme weather damages.  The assessment found that rainfall levels and flooding have increased in much of the country and that there is an estimated sixfold annual increase in the area of the U.S. West expected to be consumed by wildfires.

But these warnings have too infrequently resulted in policy changes by cities and states across the U.S., due to a lack of knowledge, political will, or funding.  The U.S. has no national sea level rise plan, for example, and the Trump Administration has scrapped rules around building infrastructure in areas deemed particularly vulnerable to climate change.

Even in New York which took the laudable step of convening the Advisory Committee, the rhetoric has not yet matched the needed reality of action.  The Cuomo Administration talks about its own efforts to combat climate change, specifically its commitment to ensure that 100% of the electricity used in the state will be powered by non-fossil fuel sources.  Despite that public pledge, as of today, the stated goal has not been put into law or enforceable regulation. 

According to lore, the Roman Emperor Nero “fiddled while Rome burned.”  While historians do not believe that to be true, the meaning today is clear – it describes someone who has been neglecting his duties.  When historians look back on the decisions made by the United States over the past few decades—and most importantly the neglect of the Trump Administration—the phrase will be both apt and accurate.

Of course, as Americans who are the most responsible for global warming, we cannot ignore our moral responsibility to act.  If Washington won’t lead, citizens must.  States like New York must step forward.  If current elected officials won’t act, we should elect those who will.

Blair Horner is executive 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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