This past Sunday I went for a run in a tank top and shorts. In February. In Durango, a small town in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. This should be the time of year for snow boots and warm hats, for skiing and skijoring, not for California-like temperatures and thinking it’s just about time for that summer river trip.
The fifty- and sixty-degree temperatures of the past week here in southwest Colorado are part of the same frightening drought that has gripped California, both of which, along with other anomalous weather events, are tied to climate change. In January’s State of the Union address, President Obama acknowledged the reality of climate change, citing the warming trend of the past fifteen years: “2014 was the warmest year on record. Now one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does: fourteen of the fifteen warmest years on record have all fallen in the first fifteen years of this century.”
Obama’s inclusion of climate change in the SOTU acknowledged the dire situation we face and lent more support than was expected to climate science. He took an important step toward acknowledging the human causes of a changing climate.
That said, Obama’s message about the dire need to act on climate change didn’t seem to reach quite as far as many hoped. After the SOTU, the official website of House Republicans posted an “enhanced webcast” of the speech from which part of the segment addressing climate change was conspicuously absent. According to Think Progress, the House Republican version “cuts out comments where the president was critical of Republican rhetoric on climate change,” and where he called for immediate action based on scientific studies. While the Republican website did retain some content referring to climate change, it cut the segment in which Obama poked fun at the “I am not a scientist” rhetoric the GOP has employed of late. Missing from the Republican webcast is this portion of the SOTU:
I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist either. But you know what—I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe.
What’s worrying to me about the editing of the SOTU is less that this segment was cut, and more that we as a culture lack an awareness of the magnitude of the human impact on the environment. Climate change will affect all of us, and should supersede such partisan bickering. We might look to George Perkins Marsh, a prescient nineteenth-century forester who was one of the first people to recognize how deeply human and natural processes affected one another. It would do us good to heed his maxim that “man is everywhere a disturbing agent,” and acknowledge the enormity of the changes wrought by human development in the past century and a half. This is not to say that we have not enjoyed immense comfort, wonder, and technological advancement from such developments, but that we should think carefully about the implications of our actions and their long-term effects on both the human and natural worlds. Confronting climate change requires humility—an ethic, it seems, which is in short supply these days.