We all know climate change is real. How did the US let it become a partisan debate? | Opinion

This year marks the 55th Earth Day. At the first one in April 1970, I found a bunch of booths on the lawn of my college informing us about ecological issues.

Fast-forward to 2024 and we’ve made some important improvements in our treatment of the planet — and at the same time, many of our actions are abysmally inadequate.

A perspective on the past could foretell our future. Bipartisan bills in the early 1970s included the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act — all excellent laws. The Environmental Protection Agency was created as one means to enforce them.

Catalytic converters were required for all gasoline-powered automobiles produced after 1974, and they reduced cars’ carbon monoxide emissions by 97%, making our air much cleaner. A news video of a river in Ohio burning from petrochemical pollution shocked the country’s conscience and inspired crackdowns, so factories and power plants had to stop dumping their toxic refuse into waterways.

That was a great start, which proved that we can find solutions — but then the progress stalled. The environment became a partisan issue, with the Republican Party choosing to serve the interests of fossil fuel firms, which contributed millions of dollars to their campaigns. The Democrats weren’t much better, with many also accepting big payouts from polluters.

By the 1990s, climate scientists told us of the perils of climate change, but many Americans scoffed at the science. Anti-scientific sentiment took hold, encouraged by disinformation ads financed by the fossil fools. (Internal company documents have since revealed that Exxon knew in the 1970s that burning its gas would cause global warming.)

Some other countries, especially in Europe, have committed more seriously to sustainability, and over there the environment is not usually a partisan issue. But the United States, one of the world’s biggest polluters per capita, shows scant leadership in world treaties because of our partisan divide.

Now decades of disregarding the dangers have come back to bite us. An Associated Press news story in March told us:

“The U.N. weather agency is sounding a ‘red alert’ about global warming, citing record-smashing increases last year in greenhouse gases, land and water temperatures and melting of glaciers and sea ice, and is warning that the world’s efforts to reverse the trend have been inadequate.”

Climate scientists say that we are close to going over a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius (more than 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial worldwide temperature levels. Consider if your child’s temperature went from 98.6 up to 101 — and stayed there. That’s not when reasonable people would dismiss thermometer science. As in humans, the Earth’s temperature is sensitive, and a spike is a serious situation.

The net effect is climate chaos. It’s already happening in the form of stronger and more frequent hurricanes, longer droughts and horrific forest fires. Coastal cities are in danger of drowning. Miami will be home to the dolphins — and not the football team. Except these dolphins will head north to cool off. Ocean temperatures exceeded 100 degrees off Florida’s coast last August. Heat like that kills many fish and sea mammals.

Such disasters have persuaded people of the problem. In an October survey, CNN found that 71% of Americans believe the climate crisis is causing some harm to their fellow citizens. That’s a big jump from other polls in the past, where it was under 50%.

Still, the deniers double down on disinformation. Even a mainstream newspaper such as The Kansas City Star published an opinion piece in January claiming that electric cars are “garbage” and ignoring their environmental upsides. The Wall Street Journal is extremely conservative, but even its car expert Dan Neil wrote a well-informed article that same week defending electric cars against such distortions.

On the bright side, prices of solar panels and wind turbines have plummeted while their efficiency has soared. So it’s economical to be ecological for home and business owners. Batteries are getting better, even for storage of sustainably sourced power. Biodegradable plant-based plastics are available, if only packagers would provide them. There are even microbes that eat plastic waste, if we’d use them.

“Earth’s issuing a distress call,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last month. “Fossil fuel pollution is sending climate chaos off the charts.”

It’s up to all of us. If choose our food, our fuel and our leaders as if our lives depend on it, maybe we can save the Earth from ourselves.

Frank Lingo is a Lawrence-based columnist for The Progressive Populist and former contributing columnist for The Kansas City Star.