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Record-Breaking Heat Raises Temperature on Climate Debate

Heat wave ... wikimedia commons.jpg

Temperatures in the Pacific Northwest got so hot in June – hitting a record 121 degrees in British Columbia – that hundreds of people died and more than a billion clams and mussels cooked in their shells.

In southern Oregon, a wildfire – fed by the heat wave and drought – burned more than 500 square miles of forests and is now spawning its own bizarre weather patterns, including lightning and reports of fire tornados.

According to scientists with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, June of this year was the hottest ever in 127 years of record keeping in the U.S., and the fifth hottest on record globally. Summers in Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore are becoming as hot as they used to be in Atlanta and Mississippi.

In an effort to reduce greenhouse gas pollution and stabilize the climate, President Biden’s Administration is supporting a $1.2 trillion, bipartisan infrastructure proposal in Congress. It would – among other things – pour money into mass transit and pay for the installation of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the U.S.

But those climate proposals – and several others in a separate $3.5 trillion Biden plan that includes health care and education spending – are headed toward a political wall in the U.S. Senate. The efforts to save our planet are imperiled by Jim Crow-era filibuster rules as well as opposition to climate regulations from Republicans, and the obstruction of a Democrat, Joe Manchin, who represents a coal-mining state.

The tragedy is that a strong majority of Americans now believes that fighting climate change should be a top priority of the federal government. But voters are increasingly polarized by party, and Republicans have disproportionate influence because of the unequal weight the Senate grants to low-population, often conservative states.

According to a poll of more than 10,000 U.S. adults released in June by the Pew Research Center, two thirds of Americans say they see climate change already impacting their local communities and think the federal government must do more to stop it.

However, those numbers included 83 percent of Democrats but only 37 percent of Republicans. That second figure is ironic, because almost half of the U.S., including several conservative-voting Western states, are literally burning in drought this summer.

Even the technologies that would solve the climate crisis have become politicized – and are falling victim to destructive culture wars. According to a separate poll by CBS News, zero-emission electric vehicles are rapidly growing in popularity among Democrats. But 57 percent of Republicans polled said they would never even consider buying an electric car or truck, compared to only 15 percent of Republicans who would.

On the other end of the spectrum, nuclear power plants generate large amounts of electricity without emitting any greenhouse gases. But only 35 percent of liberal Democrats say they would be open to expanding nuclear power, while 59 percent of conservative Republicans would, according to the Pew Research Center.

The one hopeful sign in all of this political conflict over the climate is that it appears to be concentrated among older people. A majority of Republicans under the age of 40 – 52 percent – now believe that the government needs to do more to tackle climate change, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s compared to only 31 percent of Republicans who are Baby Boomers or older.

Maybe the young Republicans see the smoke on the horizon – or, more likely, on their Instagram feeds -- and don’t want their clams cooked.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.