A summer of climate calamity and surging COVID contagion has followed an agonizing year of death and disease, underscoring a systemic shortcoming that now plagues our country.
The United States has lost the collective ability to think or plan ahead.
This summer, climate change has declared itself so insistently in so many places that only the willfully blind can deny its real-world effects. But those effects — from deadly flooding in Germany, Belgium, China, and England after huge rain dumps, to raging wildfires in the North American West, to dangerous heat waves in America, Eastern Europe, and Siberia — are all things climate scientists have long predicted.
They come as we face a resurgence in the COVID-19 pandemic spurred by the more transmissible Delta variant. Its rampage could have been, if not completely avoided, at least substantially forestalled by the simple act of a large majority of Americans getting vaccinated.
The two incidents are sobering for reasons beyond the attendant death and suffering. The first, climate, speaks to this country’s decades-long inability to address an accumulating crisis that holds large, disruptive consequences for civilization. The second, COVID, illustrates the chokehold that partisanship, conspiratorialism, and suspicion have on our short-term ability to respond to a public emergency.
Imagine where we might be now if, back in the days when global warming first emerged as a widespread topic of concern, this country had led the world in taking serious action. There were reasons to be optimistic, certainly. During the Reagan administration, when it became obvious that chlorofluorocarbons were responsible for depleting the ozone, the president didn’t politicize the matter or decry it as a hoax. After some initial hesitance, the Gipper got behind a global treaty to ban the man-made compounds.
As knowledge grew about global warming, then-vice president George H.W. Bush, the GOP’s nominee for president in 1988, promised he would act if elected. Insisting “it’s not a liberal or conservative thing we’re talking about,” Bush pledged to combat “the greenhouse effect” with “the White House effect.” Once he was enshrined in the Oval Office, however, his determined declaration was relegated to a dusty shelf.
After his early push for a poorly conceived BTU tax faltered, Bill Clinton declined to expend much political capital on climate. Al Gore would certainly have made it a priority had he succeeded Clinton as president, but that didn’t happen. And though as a candidate in 2000, George W. Bush promised to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, as president, he reneged on that pledge.
GOP nominee John McCain proposed a cap-and-trade system in 2008, but by then GOP resolution was fading fast in the face of industry obscurantism. Once Barack Obama took office, the Grand Old Party retrenched into a decade and a half of dodging and denial, with evasions designed to instill doubt even as the science grew more conclusive. The filibuster, which has reduced the Senate to a dysfunctional body during Mitch McConnell’s time as Republican leader, then came into play, as an exhaustively negotiated bipartisan cap-and-trade bill died because it obviously lacked the 60 votes needed to move forward. Faced with that reality, Obama acted through executive order, only to see the US Supreme Court stay his Clean Power Plan. Donald Trump later killed it outright.
And so here we are. The United States once had the chance to lead the world to a workable climate solution over a manageable period. Now, urgent action is needed just to forestall the worst consequences of global warming. Yet if recent past is prologue, President Biden can count on this lamentable reality as he tries his own hand at climate leadership: Even the coax-with-spending-and-tax-credits parts of his plan will have to proceed without significant Republican support, via budget-reconciliation rules that allow for Senate passage with a simple majority.
If climate has been a long-term democratic failure, COVID has shown the many impediments to effective short-term action in time of emergency.
Sadly, you can now venture a good guess about a state or county’s comparative vaccination standing simply by knowing how it voted in the presidential election. Blue America is steadily getting vaccinated. But in red America, people are perishing because of their innate suspicion of anything the federal government advocates. Or because conservative partisan polemicists have told them not to trust the vaccines. Or because rejecting vaccines has become a statement of political identity.
Together, the twin crises pose this question for all Americans: How can a democracy function, let alone be exceptional, if it can no longer summon the collective clarity of mind and purpose to avoid either long-predicted problems or more sudden emergencies?