Opinion - Georgia's stance on climate change? Head in the sand

Lawmakers are too afraid to even have a discussion

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Photo credit: Joeff Davis/CL File
TRUTH HURTS: Activists in Midtown staged a satirical protest in 2008 over a proposed coal plant in Sandersville.

Ah, to live in a world beset by climate change. Last year was the hottest on record, according to several scientific groups that monitor world temperatures, including NASA. Extreme weather has, ironically, seemed to become the norm.

Across the country, cities and states are taking steps to address the worldwide phenomenon. Several states, such as Washington and New York, have studied and even created plans for dealing with the effects caused by climate change. The Department of Defense in October called climate change a threat to national security. Even Pope Francis, the man with a direct line to God, says climate change is real and mankind is to blame.

But in Georgia you hear nothing but denial, obfuscation, or outright silence. When lawmakers were recently asked, some were hostile to science, accusing researchers of telling bogeyman tales to stay afloat in research grants. Or lawmakers say they're not qualified to make a judgment, citing a lack of experience.

You can call this a savvy political retort to a complex partisan issue or just plain ignorance. Either way, it's cowardly. When an elected official doesn't understand an issue that nearly the entire scientific community says is occurring, that official owes it to constituents to learn about the issue.

In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article published Dec. 31, 2014, many Georgia elected officials — from Washington, D.C., to the statehouse — were asked if they thought climate change was happening and whether mankind played a role. Some declined to answer, which Creative Loafing encountered when we queried several lawmakers last year. Others claimed the jury was still out, despite the mounds of evidence supporting the fact that the climate is warming. A few lawmakers said they weren't scientists and therefore couldn't say or not.

"I still haven't seen anything that's positive proof," state Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Forsyth, said to the paper. "Until I do, I'm going to have to say, well, if it is changing, it's changing at such a minute stage that I don't know what the long-term effects are going to be."

Atlanta has taken steps to reduce carbon emissions on a municipal level, including setting a goal of reducing its carbon footprint 25 percent by 2020. That's in addition to pushing for better transit, more bike lanes, and expanding recycling programs. The Atlanta Regional Commission has looked at different scenarios and responses as well. These ideas are not going to save the planet, but millions of small efforts could make a difference and build the critical mass needed to prod policymakers to action.

But as with anything that involves forward thinking, the state is way behind. (Though Georgia utility regulators are looking into setting up a market for polluters to buy credits to offset carbon emissions, that's largely in response to federal mandates to lower emissions.) In addition to publicly taking steps to try to work with big carbon belchers such as Georgia Power and curb emissions, state officials could follow the guidance of numerous policymakers and start planning to protect the places we inhabit.

According to a 2012 study by Georgia Tech and the Georgia Conservancy, even conservative rises in sea levels could inundate key inland areas along the coast. It’s one thing to pump money into projects to reroute railroad tracks and build new causeways to maintain access to the mainland. It’s another to find new homes for people who live on Tybee Island, which is projected to see 50 percent of its residential land be inundated thanks to sea level rise.

And it's not just sea level rise that should keep lawmakers up at night. Georgia Tech researchers last year found that river flows in some Georgia rivers have decreased in the past 50 years, and that climate change is the chief culprit. Decreased flows will drastically change the wildlife that lives in the state's waterways and the ability of the streams and rivers to wash away pollutants.

It's OK to have debates about issues. But Georgia isn't even thinking about having a discussion. Absent actual action, lawmakers could hold at least a hearing to discuss how climate change is affecting the state today and might in the future. We would hope it'd be different from the 2007 hearing where three of the four speakers were out-of-state scientists with links to climate change denial. But doing so would potentially put lawmakers in the precarious position of following up the meeting with action.

It is unlikely such action is going to occur in the next four years, during Gov. Nathan Deal's second and final term, absent an unheard-of catastrophe. Or a religious experience. Or the constituents who have lawmakers' ears — big business and farmers, who fuel the state's largest industry — actually speaking up about the issue. What will soda bottlers do when the next drought comes along? Or how will cotton producers water their crops?

In addition to being near the bottom of average voters' to-do lists for elected officials, the GOP has painted itself into a corner by pounding an antiscience drum all the way to victory.

Sure, a lot of our lawmakers aren't scientists. A good number aren't lawyers, yet they're happy writing laws. Many aren't transportation engineers, yet they think they're qualified to determine new road and rail funding. And very few are teachers, yet they're quite content deciding education policy.

Doing nothing is politically safer. When the greater effects of climate change are upon us, the lawmakers will be dead. But their children and grandchildren will still be alive and facing even more extreme weather. For as much talk as they like to spout about caring for younger generations, you would think they would consider an issue that will affect them long-term. But they're scared of even having the conversation. That's a coward's move.