Sometimes it feels like humanity wants to destroy itself. I was already dismayed by the lack of climate action during the Bush and Obama years, but this administration has taken climate inaction, denial of climate science, and (frankly) downright stupidity to a new level—even as the planet gets hotter, and hotter, and hotter. We’re already at about 2 degrees Fahrenheit of global warming and 411 parts per million of atmospheric carbon, both rising fast. How much hotter will it get before we stop this ridiculous “debate” about whether what’s happening is actually happening, and get on with the actual work of preserving what’s left of our climate?
So Scott Pruitt is finally out. I guess that’s good news. This was a guy who spent his entire career fighting against the environment, and then was put in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. I can only imagine what this must have felt like to the hardworking, concerned civil servants who suddenly found themselves answering to him. In an age of accelerating climate breakdown, we need a strong EPA more than ever.
Of course, what really grabbed the news media’s attention, and seemed to cause the most liberal outrage, were all the clownish scandals that piled on one after the other. Soundproof phone booths? Chick-fil-A? Tactical pants? Who could make this up? But the real conflict of interest—and the lasting damage—was Pruitt’s shameful choice to put fossil fuel interests over the planet’s life support system.
I’m not holding my breath that Pruitt’s successor will be much better. A quiet, determined, legally savvy EPA appointee who shares Trump’s values will, if anything, do even more long-lasting damage than Pruitt. And by some accounts, that’s who we’ll have in Andrew Wheeler, Pruitt’s interim replacement who will start as the new acting head of the EPA on Monday. This is why it’s so crucial to vote for candidates—at every level, and especially locally because local change is possible before 2020—who will act on climate and throw out all the deniers. It’s not just another issue: It’s the mother of all issues.
Scientists have their biases and political preferences—we’re humans, after all, like everyone else—but science itself is nonpartisan, right down to the last quark. The physics of climate change isn’t liberal or conservative; it’s just what it is, and scientists understand the fundamental physics behind climate change extremely well. And physics says it’s past time to act on climate change if we want to have some chance to save what that we love—our favorite places, the glorious diversity of species, a civilized and stable world, our children’s future. To do this, we have a long way to go. We need to start by talking about meaningful solutions like carbon fee and dividend. We need to vote in local leaders who will implement these solutions.
Unfortunately, this administration continues to run in the opposite direction.
Which raises an interesting question: With climate breakdown glaringly evident and projections of climate suffering increasingly quantified, at what point should climate denial by those in high office be treated as a crime against humanity? If someone says “I don’t believe in gravity” then pushes you off of a cliff, have they committed a crime?
Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech (speaking on his own behalf) and a contributing editor for YES! Magazine.