President Obama should spend his remaining years in office making the United States part of the solution to climate change, not part of the problem. If Congress sticks to its policy of obstruction and willful ignorance, Obama should use his executive powers to the fullest extent. We are out of time.
With each breath, every person alive today experiences something unique in human history: an atmosphere containing more than 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. This makes us special, I suppose, but not in a good way.
The truth is that 400 is just one of those round-number milestones that can be useful for grabbing people's attention. What's really important is that atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased by a stunning 43 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
The only plausible cause of this rapid rise, from the scientific viewpoint, is the burning of fossil fuels to fill the energy needs of industrialized society. The only logical impact, according to those same scientists, is climate change. The only remaining question - depending on what humankind does right now - is whether the change ends up being manageable or catastrophic.
Only someone who was ignorant of basic science - or deliberately being obtuse - could write a sentence like this one: "Contrary to the claims of those who want to strictly regulate carbon dioxide emissions and increase the cost of energy for all Americans, there is a great amount of uncertainty associated with climate science."
Oh wait, that's a quote from an op-ed in The Washington Post by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. (Published in the Arizona Daily Star on May 21, 2013.) Yes, this is the officially designated science expert in the U.S. House of Representatives. See what I mean about President Obama likely having to go it alone?
For the record, and for the umpteenth time, there is no "great amount of uncertainty" about whether the planet is warming or why. A new study looked at nearly 12,000 recently published papers by climate scientists and found that of those taking a position on the question, 97 percent agreed that humans are causing atmospheric warming by burning fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
The mechanism by which carbon dioxide traps heat is well understood and can be observed in a laboratory setting. If Smith and other deniers wish to create the impression that there is an "on the other hand" argument to be made, they'll need to come up with a radical new theory of physics.
The greenhouse gases that we have already spewed into the air will linger for centuries; if we stopped all carbon emissions tomorrow, we'd still have to deal with the effects of climate change. The question is how bad it gets.
The United States no longer holds the distinction of being the biggest carbon emitter; we've been outstripped by China. Unilateral action in Washington to reduce emissions will have no significant impact on climate change unless there is similar action in Beijing. And if the world's two biggest economies were to act, it would be much easier to convince the rest of the world to come along.
There are signs that China, for its own reasons, may be ready. The activity responsible for most of China's emissions - the burning of coal in power plants - shrouds Chinese cities in noxious pollution that the increasingly vocal middle class finds unacceptable. The government is talking for the first time about at least slowing emissions and perhaps capping them. Such a move would be huge.
While Congress was covering its ears and going "na-na-na," Obama took a big and important step by raising fuel economy standards for automobiles. Now the president should direct the Environmental Protection Agency to complete work on a rule governing emissions from new power plants.
Obama will have to go it alone. Addressing climate change cannot be just a duty. It has to be his mission.
Email Eugene Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org