This week during Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Kamala Harris asked the witness a straightforward question to which there was exactly one correct answer: “Yes.”
The question was: “Do you believe that climate change is happening and is threatening the air we breathe and the water we drink?”
It was a lobbed pitch. But, of course, Harris asked the question only because she suspected Barrett might whiff. Barrett didn’t just whiff. She fell down in a cloud of dust.
Climate change is “a very contentious matter of public debate,” she asserted. “I will not express a view on a matter of public policy, especially one that is politically controversial.”
Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court by President Donald Trump is decried by liberal critics who fear, justifiably, that her presence on the court represents a threat to freedoms and rights Americans have come to cherish or aspire to achieve, including those related to reproduction, ballot access, health care and civil rights.
Her views on the warming planet are much less discussed. But Barrett’s primitive grasp of climate science is a flaw beyond the many others that mar her nomination and should be disqualifying. It’s one thing for a justice to maintain backward judicial positions or legal interpretations. But it is intolerable for a justice, whose whole job is to weigh the facts of a case against the law, to reject the most significant fact to which humanity must respond.
Barrett’s exchange with Harris occurred on Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, the Cameron Peak Fire grew to more than 160,000 acres, making it the largest wildfire in Colorado history. It has destroyed or damaged scores of structures. The Cameron Peak Fire overtook the Pine Gulch Fire, which only weeks earlier had claimed the state’s largest-ever spot. That means the largest two wildfires in Colorado history occurred just within the last several months, and they’re still active. The Mullen Fire, which is mainly situated in Wyoming but has stretched into Colorado by thousands of acres, is, at more than 176,000 acres, bigger than either Pine Gulch or Cameron Peak. Every one of the 10 largest wildfires in Colorado history have occurred during the last 18 years.
The driver behind the increase in Colorado wildfire activity is no mystery. It’s climate change. No serious person disputes this. Rising temperatures have contributed to a drought in the Southwest that’s generally concurrent with the growth in wildfire risk and is so persistent that some scientists treat the term “drought” as inadequate and view the phenomenon as the “aridification” or “desertification” of the region. Hotter, drier conditions make Colorado forests vulnerable to bigger and more frequent fires.
Is the air we breathe and the water we drink threatened, as Harris inquired?
Residents on the Front Range all know the answer to this question. They have spent weeks under advisories of unsafe atmospheric conditions as smoke from fires in Colorado and even farther west has continued to foul the air. Water managers who provide services to residents in Fort Collins and other communities that rely on the Cache la Poudre River have warned of the threat that the Cameron Peak Fire represents to water quality. The ash and sediment that wildfires can introduce into watersheds puts local drinking water supplies at risk.
The wildfire trend is hardly unique to Colorado. California in 2020, as of this writing, has experienced five of its 10 largest fires since 1935. More than 4 million acres have burned in that state. The fires have destroyed 9,200 structures and killed 31 people. “The fire season in California and across the West is starting earlier and ending later each year,” says the state of California’s Cal Fire. “Climate change is considered a key driver of this trend.”
Climate change is not a “matter of public debate.” It is an urgent threat to the lives and livelihoods of every Coloradan. This is a fact.
Sen. Cory Gardner has faced criticism for his apparent disdain for action on climate change and his reliability as a friend of the fossil fuel industry. As his first term in office comes to a close, he has made efforts to appear more concerned with the environment, such as the way he championed the Great American Outdoors Act. If his position on climate change has at all evolved, he will vote against Barrett’s confirmation, if only to protest her climate change denialism. There’s no expectation that Gardner is capable of taking such a principled stance, but a vote to confirm a climate change denier to the Supreme Court will also confirm that whatever environmentalism he espouses is little more than campaign posturing.
No person who rejects the scientific reality of human-caused climate change is fit for public office of any kind. That goes for city council members, county commissioners, General Assembly members, governors, House and Senate members and presidents. And it goes for Supreme Court justices. The court next year will hear a case in which Baltimore is suing oil companies for damages due to climate change. Other climate change-related cases will reach the court. A conservative majority could seek to overturn Massachusetts v. EPA, which with a 5-4 decision assigned responsibility for regulating greenhouse gas emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The court will not be competent to decide such cases if justices are immune to the life-and-death facts of climate change. Coloradans need only look out their windows to understand that climate change is all too real.