When it came to climate change in the great state of Nebraska, spending a whopping $250,000 — just one-quarter of a million dollars — on a study for how a flood-prone prairie state could prepare for the impact of the earth’s rising temperatures was simply too big a hill to climb.
The push for a climate plan in the Cornhusker State to be completed by next year emerged from a legislative committee, but it seemed dead in the water as recently as last month. Even though Nebraska had already experienced both record flooding and drought during the 2010s, some Republican lawmakers questioned the cost. The influential Nebraska Farm Bureau said the climate-change readiness bill “is not a top issue for us.”
At least until recently, it’s hard to imagine that Nebraska’s Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, would have signed off on the paltry $250K anyway. In first seeking the job in 2014, Ricketts declared: “I believe it is far from clear — despite what the other side is saying — it is far from clear what is going on with our climate.” Just this January, Ricketts openly snubbed the novelist chosen for “2019 One Book, One Nebraska” event because of the author’s activism around climate and related issues like the Keystone XL pipeline.
Then the “bomb cyclone” struck.
Pelted by high winds and a week of near-biblical rainfall that melted snow and then cascaded across prairies frozen by the long winter, Nebraska has this month suffered at least $1.4 billion in flood and related damage. The rising rivers knocked down bridges, crumbled critical roadways, and destroyed 2,000 homes while crippling a strategically important U.S. Air Force base. Hardest hit were Nebraska’s farmers, who lost cattle and suffered crop damage to the tune of more than $800 million.
Michael Mann, director of the Penn State’s Earth System Science Center, told Newsweek the Midwestern “bomb cyclone” — which also claimed three lives — was a kind of “perfect storm” made worse by the moisture from the overheated Gulf of Mexico, which has become something of a planetary hot tub in this era of global warming. Mann told the magazine "we expect even more extreme events of this sort if we continue to warm the planet by increasing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from fossil-fuel burning and other human activities.”
And that’s how the Midwestern “bomb cyclone" became a day of reckoning for Republican ... ha ha, almost had you going there, didn’t I? In response to the growing evidence, from Nebraska to Mozambique, of the destructive and often deadly power of storms intensified by climate change, GOP lawmakers and leaders are doubling down — not just on the cynical nothingness of climate denial but on their dream that opposing not just environmentalism but basic science will be a winning strategy at the polls in 2020.
The right’s environmental McCarthyism bobbed to the surface this week in the two capitals we follow most closely here — in Washington, where pro-business Republican lawmakers launched their crusade to brand the Green New Deal not as a blueprint for saving their grandchildren’s planet but as “socialism,” and in Harrisburg, where the GOP legislative majority tossed the has keys on climate policy to Pennsylvania’s leading proponent of doing nothing.
The Keystone State developments are especially alarming. In the Pennsylvania Legislature, ultra-conservative GOP Rep. Daryl Metcalfe — skeptical that man-made greenhouse-gas pollution is causing climate change, and calling proposals to curb that pollution a plot by “leftists” — was in January given the critical job as majority chair of the House Environmental and Energy Resources Committee. So far, Metcalfe is using his new platform to push a pro-industry agenda — waging war against a proposed fracking ban by the Delaware River Basin Commission — and also to give a platform to skeptics opposing established climate science.
On Wednesday, Metcalfe chaired an unusual hearing on climate change with only one witness — Gregory Wrightstone, a geologist (i.e., not a climatologist) and natural-gas consultant who self-publishes popular books expressing his deep skepticism about the widely accepted science of planetary warming. Metcalfe said the hearing’s goal was to “debunk some of the myths that are out there in the public right now." His committee so far hasn’t called actual experts on climate, like Penn State’s Mann, who’ve warned of worsening storms, drought and other severe impacts if humans don’t curb greenhouse-gas pollution.
“Basically what we have is a major Republican chairman, Daryl Metcalfe, who believes climate change isn’t real — and he’s using his position as a major chairman to spread that belief system,” Rep. Leanne Krueger, Delaware County Democrat and a committee member, told me. Krueger and other Democrats like Philadelphia newcomer Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler pressed Wrightstone on the fact his books have not been peer-reviewed by other scientists, and his affiliation with the fossil-fuel-funded Heartland Institute. Krueger said Democrats hope to call actual experts later in the session. Gov. Wolf also weighed in with a tweet that called Metcalfe’s hearing “a waste of time.”
But that’s the tragedy. Earlier this year, a United Nations panel warned that the world has just 11 years, or until 2030, to bring carbon pollution under control or face the worst consequences of global warming. Pennsylvania — which by the way, produces 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas pollution — is about to waste two of those years with Metcalfe’s buffoonery.
Can things get any worse? Of course they can. In Washington, not only do we have a climate skeptic in the White House naming fossil-fuel lobbyists to key environmental posts, but a Congress that — like Harrisburg — is locked into two more years of delaying climate action. This week in the U.S. Senate, GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell brought up the Green New Deal — a broad blueprint that aims for the U.S. to meet those 2030 climate goals — not so much to seriously debate it but to mock it. Ignoring the rising flood waters in the Republican-dominated American Heartland, McConnell & Co. believe that branding the GND as “socialism” will terrify Fox News viewers off their couches and into the voting booth — assuming the road to their polling place isn’t washed out.
Indeed, Pennsylvania’s Metcalfe turned out not even to be the week’s biggest climate buffoon. That trophy goes to Utah Sen. (and hero of the Tea Party-era) Mike Lee, whose rejoinder to the Green New Deal was that Americans can fight climate change by falling in love and having "more babies,” and then mocking environmentalists with a cartoon showing Ronald Reagan firing a machine gun while riding a velociraptor.
Lee and McConnell may have thought they were laughing at leftists and environmentalists like Green New Deal sponsor Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose youth, non-whiteness and non-maleness makes her a kind of fever dream for reactionary Fox News Channel producers. Instead they were merely spitting in the face of the misery of Nebraska farmers like Anthony Ruzicka, who lost his farmhouse and his family’s first tractor in the flood and told the Times, “There’s not many farms left like this, and it’s probably over for us too.”
I’m old enough to remember when Republicans (and Democrats) fought for the future of farmers like Ruzicka — before the Fox News era when politics became all about destroying the planet to own the libs, while rewarding their Big Oil and Gas Donors. Or about “making babies” who’ll grow into a future that will be a lot more perilous, thanks to the nihilistic cynicism of Pete Ricketts, Mike Lee, and Pennsylvania’s own Daryl Metcalfe.