Three days after terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush grabbed a bullhorn and promised cheering rescue workers that “the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” On the day after Japanese fighter jets attacked Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt beseeched Congress to declare war, famously calling Dec. 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy.”
On July 7, 2023, America and the rest of the world marked yet another date which will live in infamy. Or at least it should.
Scientists say that day was Planet Earth’s hottest 24 hours ever recorded, based on the average temperatures from recording stations around the globe. The new record average daily temperature of 17.24 degrees Celsius ended a week of such records — beating the pre-2023 high by 0.3 degrees in a sign, according to experts, that climate change caused by human pollution is taking us into uncharted, and nearly boiling, waters.
OK, a global thermometer reading doesn’t sound dramatic, but 2023′s extreme weather, linked to the warming planet, has also produced memorable and alarming images that arguably rival the hellfire of war or terrorist attacks. The skies over New York City melting into an orange, apocalyptic and nearly unbreathable haze because of wildfire hundreds of miles away in Canada. Idyllic mountain towns in Vermont nearly swept away in cascading floods. In Phoenix, on the brink of tying its all-time record of 18 straight days topping 110 degrees Fahrenheit, emergency rooms are treating burns on the feet of toddlers who wander out onto their patios.
These extreme weather events are not new, of course, but they have been increasing in tandem with the Earth’s temperatures and now the summer of 2023 — with an El Niño weather pattern that is adding fuel to the fire — feels like a tipping point. People are dying, including in the Philadelphia suburbs of Bucks County, where Saturday night flooding caused by a thunderstorm that dumped 4.64 inches of rain in two hours has claimed at least three lives and possibly more. Millions more are suffering in some way, from heat stroke or breathing problems or watching their homes get washed away. And much like the map that FDR confronted in 1941, this is a global crisis, from Rome, where temperatures are predicted to hit 108 degrees Fahrenheit by Tuesday, to New Delhi, where all-time record flooding has killed at least 91 people.
Atop Athens, the iconic Parthenon has survived 2,469 years of brutal warfare and various natural disasters, but tourists could not visit on Friday because Greek authorities feared visitors might not survive the uphill climb in 104-degree heat.
We are under attack. But where is our “bullhorn moment”?
Politically, here in the United States, the response to this life-or-death turn in the climate crisis has been mostly the sound of silence. I was going to write “crickets,” but I doubt that crickets would have the energy to chirp if they could even survive the 115-degree heat that has settled over the American Southwest.
President Joe Biden — whose half-full, half-empty record on climate is better than his White House predecessors’ — talked climate change when he met Britain’s King Charles last week, but hasn’t had a fireside chat with his sweating constituents back home. Biden is aggressively trying to keep the spotlight on jobs, the lowering inflation rate and his foreign-policy wins around Ukraine — all good, but failing to convey the urgency of this climate crisis.
Of course, Biden — whose team did work an impressive $369 billion to tackle climate into 2022′s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) — is an environmental rock star when compared to the deniers and conspiracy theorists who are challenging him in the looming 2024 election — even his leading Democratic foe.
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The stunning news that a hot tub-like 98-degree ocean-water temperature was recorded just south of Florida’s Everglades — an event that is expected to kill off vital coral reefs, as well as fish, and create algae blooms — didn’t seem to register at all with the state’s governor and GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis. Just last week, DeSantis promised that, if elected, he will “rip up Joe Biden’s Green New Deal” to amp up U.S. fossil fuel production — even as major insurers are scaling back or abandoning Florida because of the climate risks.
But then Biden’s most prominent, albeit longshot, Democratic rival Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — once one of the nation’s best environmental lawyers — offered the DeSantis-esque opinion that “market forces” (which actually caused climate change, through our addiction to oil) could somehow solve global warming as he claimed that “climate change is being used to control us through fear.”
In reality, the average American isn’t fearful enough. The latest polls continue to find climate denial remains higher in the United States than any other developed nation, especially on the right. Recent surveys have shown that — unlike Europe, where big majorities even on the political right want global warming addressed — only about 23% of U.S. conservatives see climate change as a major threat, which is actually down from 2020. Another survey ranked climate change as only 17th out of 21 voter concerns.
The U.S. news media is partly to blame for this. Perhaps mirroring Biden, we’ve been doing better, but not good enough. The good news: Cable outlets (amid an otherwise slow summer) have not just been leading the hour with extreme heat, but climate experts are being interviewed, while the Washington Post led its website with a piece proclaiming that “every alarm bell in the planet is ringing right now.” But at the same time, Media Matters for America noted that only 10% of network stories about flooding in the Northeastern U.S. mentioned climate.
In a recent scathing piece, veteran media critic Dan Froomkin complained that journalists writing about extreme weather aren’t making the necessary connections to resistance from the lucrative fossil-fuel industry, or to the Republican politicians on Capitol Hill or in statehouses who are enabling them. “They should be writing about the lack of action every day,” Froomkin expounded in a tweet. “Instead, when they write about it at all, it’s as a political football.”
Almost no attention has been paid to the fact that the slim-majority House Republicans are entering the 2023 budget negotiations — amid this moment of choking wildfires and killer floods, no less — with 17 different “poison pill” amendments seeking to kill efforts to fight climate change, such as barring the federal government from buying electric vehicles. But as voters increasingly feel under siege from blazing sun and smoke-filled skies, it’s past time to turn up the political heat on these fossil-fuel-drenched charlatans.
Yes, the media and a conspiratorial public could do a lot better, but the only real way to build a working alliance comes from the very top. Biden and his aides need to grab that metaphorical bullhorn and call the TV networks to announce a prime-time address from the Oval Office that will declare a national emergency — in essence, a state of war — to fight climate change. It would be just Biden’s second speech from the Resolute Desk — signaling its importance.
An Oval Office address would accomplish three short-term goals and one even bigger thing. First, the speech would be a chance for Biden to tout what he’s done so far on climate through the 2022 bill and executive actions like reinstating the Paris climate accords. It might help build support for future action from harried low-information voters, and also for local initiatives around the billions not yet spent in the IRA. Second, the president should announce new executive orders to show the government is more serious than ever about curbing fossil fuels — such as a ban on fracking on federal lands, a 2020 campaign promise. Third, a prime-time extravaganza would place political pressure on moderate Republicans from swing districts to get with the program.
But the biggest prize would be moving public opinion by declaring the moral equivalent of war on greenhouse-gas pollution. Of course, generals — and politicians — are always fighting the last war. In 1977, Jimmy Carter declared “the moral equivalent of war” on the nation’s energy crisis — and was trounced in 1980 by Reaganomics. Biden was a senator then, so it’s no wonder he’s playing up job gains and downplaying his climate agenda.
The time for downplaying is over. As I write this, crews are searching for bodies in a swollen creek near Washington Crossing, an ER doctor in Texas is treating the latest heat stroke victim, and the coral reefs off Florida are turning deathly pale. This is war. It’s time for Joe Biden to crank up the volume and tell the greedy oil companies and the political opportunists that they’re going to hear all of us real soon.
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