EDITORIAL: U.S. leaders fiddle while planet burns

York Dispatch Editorial Board
The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyoming, last month. The Trump administration on Tuesday proposed a major rollback of Obama-era regulations on coal-fired power plants.

The warning bells don’t get much louder.

The red lights don’t flash much brighter.

The planet is on a doomsday course with self-destruction thanks to an overheating climate. The time for action was yesterday — many, many yesterdays, actually. And the action itself is increasingly daunting. It is also unquestionably necessary.

That’s pretty much what the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said last week when it issued a report on climate change that spelled out in exhaustive if depressing detail the challenges, health risks, costs and downfalls of not realistically addressing our hotter planet.

And unless drastic steps are taken — “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” in the stark language of the 728-page report — the door will close for good on any real chance to lessen, let along halt the effects.

And those effects are many, varied and frightening. Higher rates of illness and deaths from heat-related illnesses, increased smog, and infectious diseases; widespread incidents of diminished mental health; less access to drinking water; rising sea levels increasingly flooding coastal cities; diminished habitats for various animal species; a loss of farmable land; increased instances of drought in some areas; and stronger and more-frequent storms in other areas.

An example of that last item was on display last week, as Hurricane Michael exploded from a tropical storm to a Category-4 monster in just two days, fueled by well-above-normal-temperature waters in the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, scientists warn that no single weather event can be definitively tied to climate change. But it is worth noting that, like Michael, all four Category-4 or -5 hurricanes in 2017 underwent similar rapid intensification — exactly the type of pattern scientists predict we can expect as the climate continues to warm.

If you think either the report or the imminent approach of a massive hurricane got President Donald Trump’s attention, you’re not on Twitter (or, arguably, the planet).

After ignoring the dire document for a day, Trump, when finally asked about the report, was dismissive, saying he’d have to see who wrote it. Not that it matters, because Trump is about as likely to read something 728 pages long as your family pet is to cook dinner, but the report was amassed by more than 90 scientists and is based on some 6,000 peer reviews.

It was ordered as part of the 2015 Paris Accords — the global climate agreement from which Trump is seeking to remove the United States (a climate-averse decision the pig-headedness of which is rivaled only by the president’s efforts to dismantle the 2015 Clean Power Plan, which targeted domestic coal and other power plant emissions).

It should come as no surprise, then, that the day after the new report was released, Trump … removed restrictions on ethanol in gasoline. (Really.)

So add “global climate” to the list of things the president thinks he is smarter than. While you’re at it, add “global climate” to the endangered species list — with the rest of the planet to follow.

As the UN report makes clear, unless herculean efforts are made immediately to slow the rise in global temperatures to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit over pre-industrial levels, the point of no return may come as soon as 2030. (And don’t forget, the temperature has already rise nearly 2 degrees, so there’s precious little wiggle room left.)

Still, the president, his so-called Environmental Protection Agency, congressional Republicans (who just approved a climate change skeptic to lead the Department of Justice’s environment division), and the oil industry barons (who, laughably, are imploring the federal government to build oceanfront barriers to protect coastal refineries), among others, have no interest in acknowledging the problem, much less addressing it.

Ignoring troves of scientific evidence, they continue to turn back environmental protections, ratchet up the use of fossil fuels, and churn out man-made carbon emissions like there’s no tomorrow. On that last count, at least, they may be right.