Last week, congressional leaders gave up on stopping climate change for the forseeable future. The U.S. Congress dropped all forms of a cap on carbon emissions from its pending energy bill.

In a nasty irony that would find itself at home on a bad reality show, around the time Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was explaining that he didn’t have the votes for a carbon cap, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was releasing its annual State of the Climate Report. In the report, more than 300 scientists in 48 countries confirmed that the last decade was the warmest on record, continuing a long-standing upward trend in global temperature. Like NASA, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the United States Global Change Research Program, NOAA again reminded us how startlingly real climate change is.

I’ve been campaigning for America to fight global warming for a while. It was the hope of finally taking steps to combat climate change that had me so passionate about voting for President Barack Obama in 2008. Accordingly, the loss of congressional support for combating climate change is tough for me to swallow. But my sense of annoyance over last week’s events must be nothing like the sense of annoyance felt by scientists who have studied the climate their entire life yet continue to be ignored.

Among other obstacles for scientists, you may remember “Climategate.” E-mails hacked from a server at the University of East Anglia were spun by some as proof of a conspiracy among scientists to dupe the public on global warming. Around the same time, the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came under fire for a prediction about glacial melting that proved to be misinformed.

Though the scientists at East Anglia and the IPCC have since been exonerated by multiple independent investigations, the stories fueled an already thick atmosphere of misinformation. The American people are famous for their fierce independence — namely, their tendency to distrust authority and those who call themselves “experts.” For scientists everywhere, these “scandals” shook the already shaky confidence the public has in the scientific establishment. The 175 million dollars spent on lobbying by the oil and gas industries last year alone, as reported by OpenSecrets.org, didn’t help the atmosphere of misinformation either.

When the crisis of public faith was near its worst, Natalia Andronova, an IPCC contributor and climate researcher in the University’s Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, expressed to me her imperturbable faith in the ability of the general public to ultimately get things right. “The public really wants to know what is right, what is wrong,” she assured me. She felt confident that, given accurate information, Americans would make wise decisions concerning the climate.

But while I respect Andronova’s confidence in the public, I’m bothered by the fact that the public does not reciprocate her confidence. The situation is so ridiculous it’s almost comical: Dr. Andronova has dedicated her career to studying the climate. As I sat across from her in her office, she and told me that there is consensus among climate researchers that humans are affecting the climate. She wasn’t deceptive. She was simply a kind lady trying to get a skeptical public to believe her. I trust her judgment and the judgment of thousands of other climate scientists across the world. Yet many non-scientists insist they know better, usually because it feels momentarily cold outside.

It’s worth acknowledging that, while Harry Reid’s new bill doesn’t have carbon caps, it does have some provisions for encouraging energy efficiency, and it changes federal regulation of offshore drilling. It’s also an epic example of winning the battle but losing the war. We think the problem which warrants action is a leak. We call it the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history. Meanwhile, the populations of phytoplankton, microscopic plants at the very base of all life in the oceans, are down 40 percent — not from leaked oil, but from global warming. It’s the result of a slow population drop that scientists started seeing 50 years ago.

And it’s an ominous sign of what’s to come. If phytoplankton goes, ocean life collapses.

Chastising BP and plugging the oil leak are all well and good. But now is not the time for shortsightedness in Congress. In addressing the immediate problem of the oil spill, we’re treating a small symptom of using fossil fuels for energy. Meanwhile, an unimaginably more serious disaster closes in — one that will be far more costly to our society and planet if left unchecked.

Nicholas Clift can be reached at nclift@umich.edu.

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