The political media-sphere is awash in speculation struggling to make sense of the Republican electoral rout this past week. The political right, especially the “establishment” right, naturally figures it a vindication of relatively moderate, i.e. non-Tea Party, policy preferences for smaller government, lower taxes, less regulation, reduced social supports that “promote dependency,” etc. Those leaning left are more likely to see more sinister forces at work – the distorting intrusion of “dark money,” negative voter ID impacts, superficial issue coverage by media, high voter alienation/low voter turnout.
Since speculation is the order of the moment, permit me to add my own to the pile. Quite simply – The segment of the citizenry paying attention, and therefore most likely to trek to the polls to exercise the democratic privilege, is scared nearly senseless. (It is alarming indeed to note how many of the voting-eligible – a majority in fact – seem not to be paying attention. On Wednesday, I asked a number of students what they thought of the election outcome; the most common reaction was, “there was an election? – when”?) And when you’re scared, you run for safety – or whatever looks like safety at the moment.
Since virtually every headline carries a heavy fright factor, there’s plenty to be scared of – from endless legislative gridlock, to ISIS beheadings and escalating U.S. war-making trying to contain a new surge of terrorism, to stubbornly persistent high unemployment and declining economic prospects for all but the top echelon of earners. Even a drop in gasoline prices has an alarming underside – economic slowdown in the rest of the world, which will eventually boomerang our way.
But above all – and here’s the truly speculative part – I think most of all people are scared of the coming effects of climate change, whether they’re ready to admit it or not. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered the grim news last week that we’re dangerously close to exhausting our capacity to kick the climate change can down the road. And there are precious few encouraging signs that we’re ready to stop kicking. In fact, global emissions rose 2.3% to a record in 2013 – the biggest year-to-year change in three decades. At the same time, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth is headed for the hottest year ever recorded, and will reach the highest level of atmospheric carbon dioxide in 800,000 years.
By now, everyone paying attention knows that climate change does not mean we’re looking at just a few more days each summer running the AC on “high.” We’re looking at major, and in many instances irreversible, ecological disruptions of a wide variety – sea level rise sufficient to drown coastlines, mass species extinction, oceanic acidification, degradation of food crop growing conditions, and on and on. Much of the disruption, moreover, will spell grave human health threats – from killer heat waves and devastatingly destructive storms, to exhaustion of potable water supplies and new disease pandemics. Dengue fever and the Ebola virus, once confined to the tropics, are gaining footholds in the so-called temperate zones; these may be nothing more than the advance troops of a new army of sickening invaders.
So what does this have to do with a Republican sweep of the midterm elections? Call it a kind of political comfort food. The Republicans may be moving out of strict climate change denial, but they assure us that it really isn’t all that bad climate-wise, and that whatever problems we face can be solved by getting back to basics – free markets and free enterprise, individualism and self-reliance, perhaps gradually becoming ecologically “green” and sustainable, but only by squeezing more profits out of fossil fuel extraction – in short, by doubling down on what we’ve been doing for the past two centuries. Even if I have severe doubts that they’re right, I want to embrace that message; I like it a whole lot more than the distressingly disturbing message that I have to change my way of life, radically and permanently. So, instead: Spank the Democrats, put the Republicans in charge of two-thirds of the legislative process, and believe that things are bound to get better.
It’s a comforting notion, perhaps. Too bad it’s dead wrong.