Getting Warmer

CLIMATE CHANGE ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

My family was hiking in Wyoming’s Grand Tetons this summer when we came upon a grizzly bear just a few feet off the trail. Of course, we had seen the signs posted all over the park: “You are entering bear country. Proceed at your own risk.” Still, even as you’re staring at the big bear hump that tells you yes, that is a grizzly, another part of your brain is insisting, “Nah, can’t be.” And that’s good, because it’s that little dash of denial that allows you to slip away quietly instead of running off screaming, and winding up in one of those stories that do not end well.

Just a few minutes down the path, we met up with a ranger who was giving a talk on the geological history of the park. Though eager to report the sighting, we were pretty sure that shouting “Bear!’’ was not the best way to do that, and contained ourselves as the ranger marched her audience through several ice ages. I wasn’t really listening until I heard her say that although no one actually studies the glaciers in the park any more, “you can see from aerial photos that they have receded dramatically in the last thirty years, due to warm weather in the park and elsewhere.’’

“Do you mean global warming?’’ a man in the group asked her. “I don’t like to call it that,’’ she said, “because some people don’t believe in global warming, and I’ve had people get very upset with me for calling it that. So now I just say ‘warm weather,’ because no one can argue with that. It’s warm, right?’’ Which in its way was scarier than the grizzly; had the reality-based community (to quote one Republican’s contemptuous description of liberals) been so beaten into submission that we were reduced to speaking in code?

Of course, federal government in the Bush era has always excelled at creative labeling, from the “Clear Skies Initiative’’ meant to weaken the Clean Air Act to “sectarian violence operations’’ in Iraq, where though the White House insists a civil war is not going on, Iraqis are killing large numbers of other Iraqis all the same. And I thought of the president’s warm-weather friend recently when I read that a prominent British scientist had concluded that “global warming over the coming century could mean a return of temperatures last seen in the age of the dinosaur, and lead to the extinction of up to half of all species.’’ Which I must say nudges that issue past the threat posed by undocumented Mexicans on my personal political agenda.

According to Chris Thomas, of the University of York-a scientist, after all, so consider the source-“not only will carbon dioxide levels be at the highest levels for 24 million years, but global average temperatures will be higher than they’ve been at any time in at least 10 million years.” Between 10 and 99 percent of species will be faced with atmospheric conditions that last existed before they evolved, and as a result, between 10 and 50 percent of them could disappear. “We may very well already be on the breaking edge of a wave of mass extinctions,” Thomas told the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Or, as we in the glass-half-full crowd prefer to think of it, the end of all of our problems.

Meanwhile, who needs aerial photos? Since the 2004 elections, I’ve been traveling all over the country talking to women voters about their political views for a book I’m working on. But with droughts and wildfires out West, dehydrated alligators on the attack in Florida, and record heat almost everywhere in between, it has also turned into something of a domestic global-warming tour; I crisscrossed the country without hitting a single patch of ice all last winter.

For the longest time, our denial seemed impermeable; we saw that big old bear, but couldn’t believe our eyes. And though we could hardly fail to notice that every glacier in the world was melting, we preferred to pretend we couldn’t be sure why that might be. Now, though, this is changing, and so quickly that a few bold candidates in political races on every level are actually raising climate change as an issue in the November elections. At long last, global warming is checking in under its own name.

New Mexico’s Democratic attorney general, Patricia Madrid, for instance, is in a tight race-the term “dead heat” may not work for me any more-to unseat Republican Congresswoman Heather Wilson. In her very first TV ad she says, “Gasoline prices are at record levels and middle-class families are feeling the pain. But Heather Wilson took almost $400,000 from the oil and gas industries while voting to give them $2.6 billion in subsidies. I’m Patricia Madrid, and in Congress I’ll work to get rid of subsidies to oil companies. Instead, I’ll invest in alternative energy and fight global warming. I approve this message because hard-working New Mexicans are more important to me than oil companies.’’ Unlike some she could name.

In another race, in Washington State, incumbent Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell is campaigning on the myriad ways climate change could hurt her state’s economy. In fact, so many candidates are suddenly making that connection-and seeing the national security implications of what even the president now refers to as our “addiction’’ to foreign oil-that Tony Massaro, political director for the League of Conservation Voters, says conservation and support for renewable energy sources like wind and hydropower are “top-of-mind issues now, and that’s very new.’’ Even where the words “global warming” are “not in ads yet,’’ he says, “it is talked about on the stump, because voters are talking about it.’’ And calling it by its name.

Published in the 2006-10-06 issue: 

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.

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