We are only weeks into a new year, but it's never too soon to begin worrying about issues that we seem incapable of solving. Regarding Congress, stasis is the new normal.
Let's begin with climate change. No doubt you've seen the images over the past weeks. The Polar Vortex, as it's called, brought massive amounts of cold, freezing air down from the Arctic and across Canada, turning regions of the U.S. — from the heartland to the Atlantic seaboard, reaching as far south as Georgia — into an icebox of driving snow, black ice and downed power lines, with temps, allowing for wind chill, dipping to 30 below zero or more.
Of course, as people struggle along snow-swept streets, in white-out conditions, bundled in layers of fleece and wool and thermal anything, global warming denialists have seized the moment to ask a familiar and rhetorical question: what global warming? Step outside. Does this feel like the planet's temperatures are rising?
The short answer is no. But then taking one weather event and using it to ask the wrong question is de rigueur for the denialists, especially those in Congress and those on conservative talk radio who have been proselytizing for years that global warming is a hoax. Of the 46 Republicans in the Senate, 30 are climate deniers. Of the 233 Republicans in the House, 128 are climate deniers. And while more Americans believe that the planet is warming, according to a recent Gallup poll six in 10 do not believe that global warming represents a threat in their lifetime. In other words, climate change may be an issue of trends, but not an issue of the moment. As well, many Americans still question the science and the scientists.
Hence events such as this year's Polar Vortex, as well as hurricane Sandy, the Philippine typhoon Haiyan, or worldwide droughts and far more intense monsoons are all viewed as black swan events (one-offs) and not manifestations of global climate change.
Still, despite skeptical reactions, environmental scientists point to the fall-off of ice in the Arctic, which is occurring at an alarming rate. The reflective shield, they point out, provided by the ice, which prevents the sun's solar radiation from reaching the Arctic Ocean, will be dissipated and the waters will warm.
As well, covering the Arctic is a layer of permafrost, which includes the ocean floor. If the permafrost melts — an occurrence that has already begun as the planet warms — the methane gas and CO2 (1 billion metric tons), trapped in the topsoil for over hundreds of millennia, will be released into the atmosphere thus creating a self-reinforcing loop, something not seen on the planet for 2.6 million years. Today, on the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, scientists have observed methane hydrates, which is gas bubbling up from the ocean floor as if vast stretches of the surface were the equivalent of an enormous glass of seltzer.
It is becoming increasingly clear that plants and animals cannot adapt quickly enough to what is occurring and countless species are going extinct daily. As well, many environmentalists are framing their discussion in terms of adaptation, the premise being we have already passed the point of no return.
The second item on my short list: The refusal of the House Republicans to renew long-term unemployment insurance. This is legislative malpractice and it is fundamentally cruel.
By far, the majority of those unemployed are in the hunt for work, of any kind. Work is essential for all kinds of reasons. But the ripples of this chronic recession continue to impact our nation like a large rock dropped in a quiet pond.
There are more job seekers than there are jobs (still). And the older the individual is, with mortgage and children, the more difficult it is to find a job that will at the least keep him or her (many are women) above water. Absent the buffer of unemployment insurance, desperation and hopelessness frame each day (more than 1.6 million children are homeless). Yet conservatives in Congress actually believe that long-term unemployment benefits discourage Americans from seeking work.
Once again, in their universe, a safety net (food stamps is another example) is a hammock. What is stunning is that these same representatives, without reservation, have spent something like $3 trillion waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan. What has happened to us?
Lastly, there are times when I shake my head in wonder concerning our infrastructure (GPA: D-plus), knowing that there are hundreds of thousands of jobs within reach if we had the political will to restore our failing bridges and roadways and grid. America is primed for a massive works program, akin to FDR's WPA. As a nation, we can still do big things (consider Hoover Dam). It's time.
Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.