March 2011 (Completed February 2013)


Image from NASA, Public Domain


“Since I wrote one of the first books for a general audience about global warming way back in 1989, and since I’ve spent the intervening decades working ineffectively to slow that warming, I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.” ~ Bill McKibben[1]


One of the reasons I write is that I want to have some sort of “documentation” of who I was and what I thought.  I find it reassuring to know that if, at the end of my life, the “me” I know now is ravaged by dementia, there is some way people will be able to remember who I really was.  And of course, even if I’m lucky enough to be spared some form of dementia, I will someday die.  My writing is something of myself I’ll have left behind – if not a form of immortality, then a way for those who knew me to know those thoughts I cared enough about to commit to paper (or computer file).

There is a difference between an autobiography and a biography, or between a memoir and an historical account of events in your life written by someone else.  As the writer, you can filter out those things you deem “unfit for public consumption” because they are either boring or embarrassing.  It’s understandable that you wouldn’t want others to remember you by the embarrassing things you’d done or said or the things you’d gotten horribly wrong.

It would be even worse if you’d gotten things wrong and your misjudgments had harmful consequences for others – and worse still if you were a public figure, so your misjudgments and their harmful consequences were effectively “on display.” One might think that this exposure would cause public figures to exercise a prudent caution in their statements and actions, since their mistakes are public and any negative consequences of their mistakes would be public as well.  You might think that, but if you did you would be wrong.

Perhaps the most glaring (but relatively trivial) examples that leap to mind are prominent politicians’ sex scandals, of which there have been an embarrassing number.  To take just one salacious example, Bill Clinton was (and still is) a brilliant politician and (IMHO) was an excellent president, but his sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky will forever remain emblazoned on our national memory of him.

But at least that tawdry affair, jaw-droppingly stupid as it may have been, didn’t have seriously negative consequences for other people – beyond, of course, Hillary and Chelsea. It didn’t cause any serious harm to the millions of Americans – or, for that matter, the many more millions of people around the world – who heard the news.  People were shocked – disgusted, perhaps – but not seriously harmed.  I mean, it’s not as if the Monica Lewinsky affair caused the oceans to rise or the Great Plains to dry up or anything.

Among those who were most gleefully trying to capitalize on Clinton’s sex scandal were Republicans who currently are causing the oceans to rise and the Great Plains to dry up – or at least are doing nothing to help mitigate the process.  They would be the Republicans in Congress who have persisted in denying the verity of human-caused climate change. Now we are into “seriously harmful consequences” territory.

We’ve gone way beyond mere disagreements about policy.  Many on the right have departed from rationality and science – adamantly and publically.  The Republican Party has basically taken a stand against the fact of climate change. On March 15, 2011 all the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted down an amendment acknowledging that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” as well as two others “acknowledging the threat of climate change to public well-being.”[2]  This stand will not, of course, change anything happening in our atmosphere or in our oceans; it won’t make the ice caps melt any less quickly; it won’t change the overwhelming scientific evidence.

And here’s the thing:  it’s all being recorded; what public figures do and say is routinely recorded. There will be a record for all time for all to know.  Politicians cannot decide to erase something from the record. (Just ask Bill Clinton.) They cannot decide “not to put that in the essay.”  It’s being written, recorded as part of our national history, for the current generation and future generations – including their children and grandchildren – to find out about.  It cannot be undone.  This is a sobering thought.

In a “swan song” before retiring from Congress, talking before the Energy and Environment Subcommittee recently, Representative Bob Inglis (R-South Carolina) emphasized this sobering fact, saying the words slowly and pointedly:

“… It’s a wonderful thing about Congressional hearings.  They’re on the record….. And our grandchildren or great grandchildren are going to read; and so some are here suggesting to those children that, here’s the deal: [drawing on a metaphor, he noted, suggested to him by Thomas Friedman]… your child is sick; 98 doctors say, ‘Treat him this way.’ Two say, ‘No, this other is the way to go.’ I’ll go with the two [you say]. You’re taking a big risk with those kids. 98 doctors say do this thing; two say do the other. So, it’s on the record. … And I hope in the future if you have these hearings that you realize that it’s all on the record. … And our grandchildren and our great grandchildren are going to get to see.  And it could turn out that the science is all wrong; you know, we’ve had that before.  … Sometimes science turns out to be wrong.  But other times it turns out to be very right.  And as a result, we wake up in several years and we say, ‘Gee, this didn’t work very well for us. The two doctors turned out not to be so right; 98 might have been the ones to listen to.’” [3]

It’s on the record.  And the odds are very great that the climate scientists – the 98 percent who agree that climate change is all too real – are right. And it will forever be recorded that these Republicans were on the wrong side of history, that they denied something for which there was a mountain of scientific evidence, something that scientists warned for decades could have potentially catastrophic effects if we failed to act. It will forever be recorded that they refused to do anything about it, even going so far as to try to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency, given the power by the Supreme Court to regulate CO2, from exercising that authority.

Now, there are only a limited number of possibilities.  It’s possible that they sincerely believe what they say they believe, that climate change isn’t happening or that it may be happening but it’s not caused by human activities. Alternatively, it’s possible that they don’t really believe what they’re saying, that they’re just saying it for political reasons (read: because they don’t have the courage and/or integrity to defy their paymasters in the fossil fuel industry). Finally, it’s possible that they haven’t really formed a clear opinion, that they are aware of what the two sides – the climate scientists and the climate change deniers – are saying but haven’t exerted the effort to find out enough to come to an informed opinion.  None of these possibilities will make them look good in the history books, regardless of what their current benefactors say.

I have many times wondered, Don’t these people have children or grandchildren?  But even aside from the impacts on those they personally know and love, there’s the jaw-dropping apparent lack of any concern for their reputations.   What the high-profile climate change deniers are doing and saying now will become part of recorded history; it will become part of their legacies.

But people like James Inhofe don’t seem concerned about their legacies.  Inhofe is a very conservative Christian, a long-time U.S. senator from Oklahoma, and former chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works whose hostility to environmental issues has been well documented. He may be best known for his frequent claim that human-influenced climate change is impossible because “God’s still up there”[4] and for referring to global warming as “the greatest hoax.”[5],[6] (The irony of Inhofe heading the main Senate Committee on the Environment is not lost on anyone who isn’t brain dead.[7])

Interestingly, high-profile, conservative Christian climate change deniers like Inhofe presumably believe in an afterlife in which we each finally get what we deserve – the justice, reward or punishment, that so often eludes people in life.  Perhaps he imagines himself at the pearly gates, ready to enter upon God’s okay.  I don’t detect any evidence that in Inhofe’s mental calculations of his “earthly scorecard” in God’s eyes there is any thought of all the climate change-related disasters and human misery that his insistent denial will have helped along.  One can only presume that in Inhofe’s mind, he has been a “good Christian,” and he has simply blocked out any possibility of all the rest of it – the fates of those millions upon millions of future (and more and more currently living) people, and species and whole ecosystems about which scientists are becoming practically apoplectic. To Inhofe, that’s all a hoax because God would never let all that happen.

Back in reality, those of us who don’t necessarily believe in an afterlife are gobsmacked by the sheer hubris of Inhofe’s stance. And I cannot help wondering: Does he ever, in the privacy of his own mind, think, What if the scientists are right?  Over 98 percent of them, after all, believe human-caused climate change is indeed real and potentially catastrophic – and more likely catastrophic with each passing decade in which we fail to address the problem. Does he ever have a momentary flash of horror in which he admits the possibility and thinks, What have I done? Or has he so tightly walled himself off that, when he hears yet another climate scientist emphasize the extreme seriousness of the situation, not even a moment’s doubt can creep into his consciousness?

If I write something in an essay that I later judge to be wanting in some way, it will bother me a little to know that the essay has been “out there” in cyberspace on my website for others to read and perhaps to also judge the essay wanting.  I may wish I could rewrite it and “rerun the tape” of people reading it – this time with a revised essay.  I can only assume that Bill Clinton wishes he could “delete” the whole Monica Lewinsky affair from his life and from the public record.  But neither my essays nor Bill Clinton’s sexual escapades are likely to have any really substantial impact on people’s welfare. I may feel concern about whether my essays were sufficiently polished to put “out there” for public consumption, but I never have to worry that they have caused untold harm. And similarly with Clinton’s unfortunate sexual transgressions.

But what about the climate change denial crowd? Their adamant and public refusal to acknowledge, let alone address, human-caused climate change (coupled with their ongoing efforts to misinform the public about it) despite increasingly urgent warnings from climate scientists about the potentially dire consequences is a thing to behold. If the scientists are right – and they almost certainly are, at this point – Inhofe and his Republican colleagues in Congress, and their fossil fuel industry paymasters, will have a damning legacy indeed.  Because all of it – the mind-numbingly ignorant and self-serving stances they’ve stood by for so long, in the face of overwhelming evidence; every lunatic utterance – is part of the public record.  Those future people who survive the climate-related horrors that await will read about it in the history books.

Of course, people rarely see themselves as the villains in any story. So while I have immense trouble wrapping my mind around what Inhofe and his ilk are doing (and refusing to do), I assume that in their own personal narratives there is nothing like the culpability that I attribute to them.  I suspect, however, that the history books will largely agree with me about the climate change deniers – that, like the many wrecked homes and lives strewn in the path of future climate-related severe storms and floods and droughts, their reputations will be beyond salvaging.  We’ll just have to hope that the same will not be true of planet Earth as well.

[1]  McKibben, W. “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” Rolling Stone.  July 19, 2012. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719

[7]  Inhofe’s long-running hostility to environmental science, and his reliance on his religious beliefs (in addition to issuing statements of dubious verity) to counter the claims of climate scientists are nicely summarized in the Wikipedia article on Inhofe, under a section titled, “Environmental issues.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Inhofe. Accessed February 2, 2013.


3 comments on “Legacies

  1. […] when there was still substantial uncertainty, but quite recently as well. As I noted in my essay, Legacies, “on March 15, 2011 all the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted down an […]

  2. […] I noted in my essay, Legacies, “on March 15, 2011 all the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted down an […]

  3. […] actively tried to thwart the efforts of those who are trying to do something about it. As I noted elsewhere, “on March 15, 2011 all the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee voted down an […]

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