On three key topics, the weight of public opinion and the actions of our elected leaders are out of sync. Global warming, immigration and background checks for gun buyers.

In all three cases, public opinion favors governmental action. In all three cases, our elected officials, especially Congress, sit on their hands. Many of us just want Congress to do its job, whether or not it moves in the direction we want.

Let’s look at warming. We’re coming off a nasty winter. Too long, too cold, too much snow. So what else is new? It’s hard to write about warming when the sun struggles to come out day after day and the daily highs sometimes don’t break 50.

Still, a survey in December by George Mason University in Virginia shows 59 percent of Americans “alarmed” or “concerned” about global warning and 17 percent “cautious.” Nine percent are “doubtful,” 9 percent are “dismissive” and 5 percent don’t care. Last week, protesters in London and Paris took to the streets to urge action on climate.

In our country, most who want action blame humans for spewing into the atmosphere fumes that hold heat close to the earth. Most who reject action say it is a natural cycle, with which humans have little if anything to do and, even if it our fault, we can’t fix it.

Both sides miss a basic point.


But first, a bit of background. Scientists at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies have found that since 1975 the average global temperature has risen about 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit. That doesn’t look like much. And the time frame is pretty short in earth years. But, they went on, since 1880 the average global temperature has risen about 1.4 degrees. So, both the short- and long-term trends are upward, and the pace is picking up.

And every autumn lately, we’ve read reports from the federal weather bureau that the summer just ended was the hottest, or third hottest or whatever rank, on record.

By the late ’60s people were beginning to notice pollution. Remember dead fish on the surface of the Androscoggin River? And the foul air? You probably don’t think of Richard Nixon as an environmental zealot. His passion was foreign affairs, but in 1970 he established the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.

The same year, Congress passed the Clean Air Act. Two years later came the Clean Water Act. Both have been amended several times, and the EPA has gained great power to act on its own or at the behest of a president, as it did when Obama skirted Congress to tighten fuel efficiency rules or Trump did to loosen them.

When Congress passed the Clean Air Act, only one of the 535 members voted no. Two decades later you could see a little slippage in that support when Congress toughened the Clean Air Act a bit. The Senate voted 89-11, (Democrats 50-5, Republicans 11-6). The House voted 401-21. Congress actually seemed ahead of the public. Hard to believe.

At least two ways to look at what happened next. First, industry, notably oil, found pliant scientists to cast doubts about both global warming and the role of humans in the warming. Second, scientists took it that their case was made. The gap widened. People want action, powerful forces in Congress and the president don’t.


Back to the debate.  The real question isn’t who or what has caused the steady warming. The real question is whether we can do anything about it. Bill McKibben, author of “The End of History, said recently that we are afraid not of global warming but of its possible solutions. When a few in Congress set out an earth-shaking (pun intended) batch of solutions, defenders of the status quo wasted no time mocking the Green New Deal proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass.

The Green New Deal would have us start a 10-year mobilization to cut carbon emissions, generate 100 percent of our electricity from renewable and zero-emissions power, digitize the power grid, make every building in the country more energy-efficient and invest in electric vehicles and high-speed rail. Ambitious to say the least. And pretty well DOA in Congress. Even environmentalists are cautious, probably because it is so sweeping. Nonetheless, much of this is going to happen through the market.

Here’s an example of how the market has worked to slow global warming. As a farmer, I drove at least once a year to Lewisburg, West Virginia, to get baby turkeys. The route goes deep through Virginia coal country. On each trip, for years, we saw three or four long coal drags moving along the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway through Clifton Forge and Covington. By 2012 we saw no trains, just strings of empty coal cars sitting on sidings. By 2014, even the empty cars were gone.  Not one coal train moved along that stretch.

Those vanished sightings are the tip of an iceberg that has hit the coal Titanic. We have cleaner, cheaper energy sources. Coal was killed by the market, not by regulation.

We can also slow warming through personal action. I read recently that one mature tree absorbs all the carbon emission of one car in a year. I own a car. Maybe I should go to the Fedco tree sale on May 3-4 in Benton to buy another apple tree. I’ve already planted a dozen, but maybe I should plant one a year to make up for the fumes spewed by my car.

We can proceed through elected leaders (wishful thinking?), through the market (slow but sure) and as individuals (easy and fast but a wee result per person). One of what seems like a million Democrats running for president has got a key point right. Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told The New Yorker that Make America Great Again is “a dishonest and false slogan.  There’s no going back.” Instead, he said, we need to ask, “What does greatness look like going forward?”

Bob Neal plans to toodle over to Benton on May 3 to buy some more trees.  He’s also looking about for other steps he can take (maybe literally) to do his part.

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