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When it’s staring you in the face, it just might be the truth

America is melting, sweltering, bleeding and burning

Children cool off Sunday by playing in a fountain in Brooklyn, N.Y., as the sun sets during a heat wave. Politicians are leaving the problem of climate change to our children and grandchildren, Mary C. Curtis writes.
Children cool off Sunday by playing in a fountain in Brooklyn, N.Y., as the sun sets during a heat wave. Politicians are leaving the problem of climate change to our children and grandchildren, Mary C. Curtis writes. (Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

“Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

The phrase has morphed from hackneyed joke to cliche to words to live by.

When I saw the street scene from the familiar city of Tucson, Ariz., it looked like a creation of Claes Oldenburg. But this tableau of a port-a-potty sliding into a plastic heap in the Southwestern heat was reality, not art object, something I doubt the artist, who recently died at 93 after a career of creativity, could ever have imagined.

When I lived in Tucson 30-plus years ago, we certainly had our hot days, ones where the sun seemed to be sitting on your shoulders with no relief in the weather report. But I don’t remember witnessing anything like that.

Yet, that image and so many more — wildfires all over the world, buckling airport runways and Texas roadways “bleeding” the binder that holds them together — have resulted in solutions that could only be described as temporary. Wrapping London’s Hammersmith Bridge in foil or coating Phoenix streets with a gray emulsion might work, but for how long?

And what’s to become of the iconic Tour de France? The first yellow jersey donned by the bicycle race leader in 1919 was made of wool, the thought of which is more than scary in 2022, when riders and spectators risked their lives while navigating twisty routes throughout that broiling country.

What are leaders doing about a long-term threat we feel in our cities, our homes and our bodies?

Hedging, dissembling and putting it off on our children and grandchildren, who must be thrilled at yet another problem left by the grown-ups.

This is happening as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts dangerous levels of heat across the country.

The Biden administration’s special presidential envoy for climate, John F. Kerry, has spoken of the urgency of the challenge. But across the world, other countries’ good intentions — and not-so-good ones — are also clashing with the realities of economics and war, the difficulties of acting immediately when other pressing issues can’t help but take priority.

President Joe Biden said in a recent speech, “The health of our citizens and our communities is literally at stake,” before announcing executive actions on climate, with more to come. At a visit to a former coal-fired power plant in Somerset, Mass., now a manufacturing hub, Biden’s announced plans included programs to bolster energy assistance and $2.3 billion to help communities deal with extreme weather events.

But those actions came after Congress stalled on a climate bill. Not a single Republican senator, nor West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III, would sign on to legislation designed to move the country away from dependence on fossil fuels and toward clean-energy alternatives, though Manchin began to change his tune on Wednesday.

It’s not that fears of inflation and rising prices, and their economic and political toll, are insubstantial. That’s reality, particularly as midterms approach and attack ads write themselves. But nature shows no sign of waiting or being satisfied with half measures. Neither should the low-income and minority communities who pay the highest price, literally when it comes to the bills in homes that may not be at peak energy efficiency. The absence of adequate tree canopies and parks in neighborhoods can mark a difference in degrees, actual degrees. Using the example of San Antonio, Texas, The New York Times has reported that residents in that “heat island” then have long wait times for buses to travel to cooling centers.

A legacy of discrimination and disregard also places minorities in communities with higher levels of pollution and in closer proximity to plants and practices that harm the environment and trigger poor health outcomes. It’s not that these Americans don’t care about inflation, but living a healthy life is nonnegotiable, as well.

Some programs are trying to instill knowledge of life-shaping environmental challenges in future generations, who will be living in the crisis. One example is a grant awarded to Tulane University to help it design a curriculum — one that is free and can be shared by instructors around the world — teaching environmental justice to kindergarten through 12th-graders in Louisiana. As reported in Nola.com, the goal, researchers said, is to inspire young people to “develop a critical analysis of their surroundings, animate their sense of political agency and creatively engage our dynamic climate future.”

Are such programs merely a drop in a leaky bucket?

It’s always tempting to believe that every problem is fixable, or that certain things won’t affect us if we look away, if we believe what our uncle or someone on the internet says — just close the curtains and retreat into silos.

But just as heat seeps through those curtains, the truth will slap you in the face.

In the ultimate example of denial, politicians are actually making demonstrably false statements, out loud, as in “believe me, the 2020 election was stolen,” even as a parade of Republican witnesses are testifying at the House hearings into the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, speaking under oath about the moment that was a step too far for anyone who cares a whit about a representative democracy, one that counts the votes of all Americans, no matter their race, faith or community.

The world is getting a laugh at the sight of Missouri GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, being fist-pumping brave while protected by barriers and police, but then scurrying to escape those he would provoke. But there is nothing amusing about the bloodied officers who paid the price, and testimony, photos and videos disprove the lie that there was nothing much to see that day.

In the words of former President Donald Trump (yes, former), captured and replayed as he refused to admit to his defeat, as pleas to insurrectionists to be “peaceful” had to be dragged from his lips, as he crossed out condemnations of lawbreakers and reportedly called crooked counselor Rudy Giuliani instead of help for beleaguered members of Congress and police, there is clear evidence of his and his loyalists’ plans for the future — the future of America.

There is good reason to be worried about a country that’s burning — literally and figuratively.

If Americans choose to believe their lying eyes.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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