Why is acknowledging humankind’s role in climate change so hard?

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THE state Senate this week had a brief but telling debate about climate change. It ended, depressingly, with a mostly party-line vote that very well could have taken place years earlier, with Republicans resisting the science on humankind’s clear role in reshaping our global climate.

At issue was an amendment proposed by state Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland, to a worthwhile energy policy bill that simply added the international scientific consensus: “The Legislature finds that climate change is real and that human activity significantly contributes to climate change.”

State Sen. Doug Ericksen, the sponsor of the underlying bill and the oil industry’s prime champion in the Senate, stood and asked lawmakers to substitute “significantly contributes” with “may contribute,” suggesting that the science behind humankind’s role in climate change is uncertain. “If you want to keep throwing up studies, we can keep knocking them down with other studies,” said Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

That retrograde summary of climate change research is wrong and corrosive. The most comprehensive summary of climate-change research is compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations-affiliated task force of more than 3,500 experts. In its fifth report since 1988, the task force concluded that the effects of climate change — from dying coral reefs to more extreme weather patterns — are already worse than predicted. It is “extremely likely” — at a 95 to 100 percent probability — that humans are the “dominant cause.”

Ericksen’s amendment passed because just one Democrat, state Sen. Brian Hatfield of Raymond, voted for it, while just one Republican in the GOP-led Senate, Sen. Steve Litzow of Mercer Island voted against it.

From the Puget Sound region, Republican Sens. Andy Hill of Redmond, Joe Fain of Auburn, Mark Miloscia of Federal Way, Pam Roach of Enumclaw, Steve O’Ban of University Place, Bruce Dammeier of Puyallup and Kirk Pearson of Monroe all voted for the amendment.

There certainly were partisan politics in play with this vote: a Democrat, Habib, seeking to amend a Republican’s bill in the GOP-led Senate. And Habib’s amendment didn’t meaningfully change Ericksen’s bill. But the vote was important, because it shows a refusal to publicly acknowledge the scientific consensus.

Acknowledging that consensus does not bind a lawmaker to specific solution to carbon emissions, such as Gov. Jay Inslee’s cap-and-trade proposal. There should be vigorous debate about the most effective way to ease Washington away from fossil fuels, limit our carbon emissions and move toward more renewable energy sources.

But getting to that debate must start with the simple acknowledgment: Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have been emitting carbon at unprecedented rates, and that is changing our climate.