This story appears in the Oct. 31 issue of our magazine.
I work in the one place in America where the question, “Is climate change real?” is still a question. You guessed it: I work in Congress.
Scientists overwhelmingly agree that carbon pollution from fossil fuels is driving unprecedented changes in our atmosphere and oceans. Indeed, 14 of the warmest 15 years ever measured have been in this century (contrary to the skeptics’ claim that there has been a “pause” in warming in recent decades).
In our coastal states, sea level rise, warming and acidification are readily measurable. Our U.S. military lists climate change as a serious threat to national security. Major American companies as diverse as Apple, Goldman Sachs, Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart acknowledge climate change and spend their money to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and invest in renewable energy sources. In the American public, 83 percent say that global warming will be a “very” or “somewhat serious” problem if we do not act, and three-quarters favor President Obama’s plan to limit carbon pollution from power plants.
For members of Congress who say the science is not, in fact, settled, I say, “Don’t you trust NASA and NOAA and our Navy and every American national lab — the science you pay for? And every major U.S. scientific society? Are they all wrong? And if you think there is some vast federal conspiracy, how about your own home state university?”
Oklahoma trusts Dr. Berrien Moore III to be dean of your College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at the University of Oklahoma. Moore testified years ago before a House committee: “On the increasing strength of Earth science, we now can state that global warming is unequivocal,” he said, “but this simply sets the challenge. We need now to develop the capability to monitor and thereby manage greenhouse gas emissions through this century and beyond. ... The challenge is growing and will not go away.”
State universities in virtually every state offer similar warnings. And yet we are not meeting this unequivocal challenge.
Oklahoma’s Climatological Survey statement on climate change is straightforward: The Earth’s climate has warmed during the last 100 years; the Earth’s climate will continue to warm for the foreseeable future; and much of the warming we have seen over the last 50 years can be attributed to human activities, particularly those emitting greenhouse gases.
And here’s what your agency says Sooners can expect: crops maturing earlier, leaving them more vulnerable to spring freezes; increased frequency and severity of drought; drier and warmer conditions, increasing wildfire risk; and more intense rainstorms, with more runoff and flash flooding. Dr. Mark Shafer, a researcher at the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, told The Oklahoman that in a few decades, Oklahoma could see an entire month of 100-plus-degree temperatures every summer. By century’s end, Oklahoma’s daily high temperatures could top 100 degrees for the entire summer.
Oklahoma professors from Oral Roberts University, Southern Nazarene University and the University of Tulsa were among 200 evangelical scientists and academics to sign a 2013 letter to Congress imploring it to address climate change. “All of God’s creation,” they wrote, “is groaning under the weight of our uncontrolled use of fossil fuels.”
Yet some in Congress still cling to a small fringe who deny the established scientific consensus. This fringe group has two notable characteristics: They tend to avoid the scrutiny of scientific peer review, and they tend to have financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. Dr. Riley Dunlap of Oklahoma State University researches the effort by fossil fuel interests to distort public opinion with bogus information on climate change — what he calls the “organized climate-denial machine.” Dunlap and a colleague found that nearly 90 percent of the books questioning climate change science published between 1982 and 2010 were tied to “think tanks” funded by fossil fuel interests.
If you think there’s a vast federal scientific conspiracy, and that you can’t even trust the military on this, listen to the Oklahoma experts. They’ll tell you that climate change is real, that the consequences are serious for Oklahoma and that there’s an industry-funded “organized climate-denial machine.” Or use your own two eyes and brain.
Gary McManus, Oklahoma’s state climatologist, gives presentations on climate change and its likely effects on Oklahoma. He often begins his talk saying this: “This is the science. It’s up for you to decide what you do with it. You can either ignore it, or you can use it.” That’s good advice for politicians. For me, I think there’s too much riding on this to ignore it.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, is the junior U.S. Senator from Rhode Island.