So, What’s Causing Global Warming, Congressman?

After months of writing and waiting, my congressman’s office finally called back.

This isn’t just any congressman: This is Scott Garrett, the long-time Republican congressman representing New Jersey’s 5th District. The map of the 5th District tells you immediately that something fishy has been going on. It’s an irregular strip of upper- and middle-class suburban and ex-urban communities stretching from wealthy Wall Street bedroom communities to rural horse farms. Rep. Garrett’s stock in trade is his powerful voice on the House Financial Services Committee, the source of a trove of cash he receives from the banks he is charged with overseeing.

But that doesn’t keep Garrett from wandering into the general vicinity of climate science. Not surprisingly, Garrett is one of the many in Congress who swell the ranks of climate denial. In fact, the League of Conservation Voters gives him only a 3% rating, one of their very lowest. In 2010, Garrett told the New Jersey Herald that he had no idea if global warming was even happening.

Superstorm Sandy convinced many New Jerseyans that climate change was a serious risk

Superstorm Sandy convinced many New Jerseyans that climate change is  a serious risk — but not Rep. Scott Garrett.

“The real question that still exists in a lot of people’s minds, experts and non-experts alike,” said Garrett, “on the area of global warming and what role the government should have in this realm … I’ve heard a number of experts on both sides of the equation on this issue and to me the evidence, the question is still out there.”

Well, since then, more than five years had passed, several global heat records have been broken and super-storm Sandy has ravaged Garrett’s home state. So I figured that the congressman might have noticed that there simply isn’t any more scientific debate over the reality and the cause of climate change, and its costs to the folks back home. So I began writing and calling. I wasn’t going to be put off by the standard form letters touting how much he loved “landscape” and “beauty,” and all the “job-killing” EPA action he was opposed to.

I asked what he actually supported in dealing with climate change.

I asked again. And again. Until I finally got a call back, after months of trying. It wasn’t Rep. Garrett himself, mind you. It was a fellow named Stephen, one of Garrett’s staffers. Stephen had an upper-crust British accent and the refined manners that would go with it. I couldn’t believe that I was hearing from a Tea Party politician’s office; it sounded like Buckingham Palace on the line.

I’m afraid that Stephen’s British manners outshone mine by a longshot. I kept interrupting his canned talking points about “energy independence” and “all-of-the-above energy” and “job-killing regulation” with one repeated question: “What will the congressman do about the climate crisis?”

Well, of course, the actual answer was – Nothing. But you can’t acknowledge that we face a crisis, and still insist on doing nothing. So Stephen began asking me how I was so sure that climate change is happening. And particularly, didn’t I think that El Niño might have something to do with it?

“El Niño?” I asked, flabbergasted. I thought I should explain some basic facts to this mannerly Brit: El Niño patterns occur every decade or so in the Pacific, and seem to accompany spikes in global temperatures. Yes, the last strong El Niño event occurred in 1997, ushering in the then-record-hot year of 1998 (since then, a record broken four times). And yes, 2015 – the world’s hottest year ever – was also an El Niño year.

But, I asked, didn’t the congressman understand that El Niño effects last only a year or two, while global heat is growing year after year in an alarming pattern? Doesn’t he read about the decline in Arctic sea ice, and the melting of the polar ice sheets? Doesn’t he know what’s happening with rising sea levels? Doesn’t he understand the nature of greenhouse gases that are rising year after year as we burn more and more fossil fuels?

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Thermal imagery of effects of 2015 El Niño in the eastern Pacific. NASA image.

The staffer’s response took me off guard: “I suppose,” he said in his most dignified British manner, “we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

What? Wait a minute! You’re not disagreeing with me. You’re disagreeing with every university in New Jersey – Princeton, Rutgers, Drew, Fairleigh Dickenson and more. And you’re disagreeing with NASA, and NOAA, and the US Armed Services. And you’re disagreeing with 195 other countries that just signed the Paris Agreement to fight global warming.

“So, what’s your alternative theory for rising global heat?” I asked. El Niño is probably to blame, Stephen implied in an artfully cautious response. El Niño, the periodic one-year phenomenon that the whole world has failed to understand as the cause of a century-long heating of the earth.

“And how do you know about El Niño?” I asked. Of course, he admitted what everyone knows: from climate science. You know, the same scientists whose conclusions Stephen dismisses as alarmist propaganda. Or at least, when those conclusions suggest that we need to move away from fossil-fuels produced by powerful campaign contributors like the Koch Bothers.

Well, Rep. Garrett, this is simply ludicrous. Any of the thousands of young people enrolled in New Jersey’s fine colleges and universities can tell you that the basic science of climate change is well settled, and highly unlikely to be undermined by the sources you rely on, like the US Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute.

Maybe it’s too late, but let me just hope one last time: There are Republicans in Congress who have recognized the danger to our country, our children and our world, and are calling for climate action. In theory, at least, you could join them, and restore our confidence to some degree. The Climate Solutions Caucus is one option; the Gibson Amendment is another. And if you were to add your name to either one, you’d likely hear cheers from the 56% of Republican voters who actually support regulating carbon emissions from power plants.

And then maybe we’d manage to forget that you tried to blame long-term global warming on this year’s El Niño.

I haven’t given up hope just yet. You can still do something really good for us and our children.

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