As summer winds down, the air on the Island will become increasingly cooler and the humidity will diminish, as the poison ivy and sumac leaves turn yellow and red, all signs of the coming autumn. But will we forget July and August when the heat was high and the humidity unbearable?
The heat set records across the U.S. in July and into August. Phoenix hit at least 106°; wildfires spread over the West, with 20 in California alone. The fire in Mendocino County developed into the largest wildfire in California history. Hundreds of folks lost their homes, and even more have had to evacuate.
The same is true across Europe and Asia. Wildfires hit Europe, the worst in over 100 years. According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, some 118 heat records were set in July. The Associated Press sent out a photograph of a man sunbathing in Sweden as the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute, like NOAA, warned residents of the dangers of very high heat: Several Scandinavian countries, for the first time ever, hit temperatures over 90°.
Even Japan had a record very high temperature: 106°. The government reported dozens of heat-related deaths there.
This year, 2018, could well become the fourth hottest year on record for the globe. The three previous ones were the highest yet. In fact, 17 of the past 18 years have been the hottest since records were recorded for temperatures.
If that weren’t enough, these temperatures have been accompanied in some areas by not only drought, but, ironically, heavy rain and flooding. Baltimore, for example, which usually experiences about four to five inches of rain in July, received 16 inches. Last year, Hurricane Harvey in Houston broke all records for how much rain can fall in a single storm. Scientists estimate that without climate change and global warming, the amount of rainfall during Harvey would have been 15 percent less.
Apparently, climate change does not trigger hurricanes. It just intensifies them.
We can probably expect reductions in crop production throughout the globe, especially wheat, but other produce as well.
A Boston TV newsreader in July reacted to the low-to-mid 90s temperature and high humidity forecast set out by her colleague, the local weatherman, with words to this effect: If it’s Boston in July, it must be muggy, buggy, and hot. And yet, when I was in New England in the 1960s, things were a whole lot different. The temperatures hardly left the 70s, and the humidity was a very comfortable 50 to 60 percent.
That was then, this is now.
A clear majority of climate scientists believe that all evidence points to the emissions of greenhouse gases as the reason for these changes over the past 50 to 60 years. Carbon dioxide levels, they have found, grew to their highest level in 2017, the most recent year in which the data is available. According to some researchers, atmospheric carbon is at its highest level in 800,000 years.
Writing in the Boston Globe recently, Harvard lecturer Linda J. Bilmes noted that “the Arctic is melting faster than at any time in the past 1,500 years, and may be free of ice in 30 years. Coral reefs are bleaching. Fish stocks are depleted.”
When the Obama administration failed to persuade Congress to act on climate and global warming, the president issued several executive orders, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set out several regulations to reduce carbon emissions. President Obama signed the Paris climate agreement in 2016, which, to remind everyone, means that each signator nation attempts to limit the average global temperature increase to 1.5° Celsius above average preindustrial levels.
President Trump has reversed most, if not all, of Obama’s orders. The EPA, first under Scott Pruitt and now Andrew Wheeler, withdrew many of its regulations. And last year the president pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the only country of 195 to do so.
For a while, the Supreme Court with Justice Anthony Kennedy still on board upheld EPA regulations that went beyond its mandate under the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, which President Richard M. Nixon signed into law.
In 2007, the court ruled by a bare majority that the EPA could impose new emission restrictions on automobiles, power plants, manufacturers, and other industries to tackle climate change. With Justice Kennedy in the majority in Massachusetts v. EPA, the court held that the EPA could broadly define pollution as any polluting agent that negatively affected “public health and welfare.” The EPA could regulate or even outlaw it. Four dissenters argued that the law creating the EPA did not envision climate change.
The problem is that Justice Kennedy retired on July 31, and President Trump’s nominee to replace him, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, is very likely unwilling to allow the EPA to go beyond its congressional mandate to address climate change, which was little-known in the early 1970s.
He has written majority opinions on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that reject EPA rules limiting emissions or pollution that crosses state lines. He has argued that it is not the duty of an agency like the EPA to undertake this task. It is Congress’s responsibility to address environmental rules.
So what can we expect in the coming years if Congress, as it has failed to do for so long now, does not attempt to address the issue? The regulations will soon be gone under Administrator Wheeler, and the Senate will likely confirm Judge Kavanaugh as Justice Kennedy’s successor. The answer to the question is that nothing good can come as a result of these global environmental changes, here on the Island or anywhere else in the world.
Jack Fruchtman, a seasonal Aquinnah resident, teaches constitutional law and politics at Maryland’s Towson University. Fruchtman will be discussing the Constitution and Bill of Rights at “Islanders Read the Classics” on Thursday, August 23, at 5 pm at the Old Aquinnah Town Hall.