When Reality Comes Knocking

Climate change, Covid and January 6—Behind the tweets

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From the Tamarack fire at the California-Nevada border, just south of Lake Tahoe, on July 17, 2021. (Photo by Ty O'Neil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

It’s hard to overstate the scale of denial in our current public sphere. From climate change to COVID vaccinations to the insurrection, significant swaths of the American public are behaving as if they can live in a world of delusion and will not face consequences. Of course, they are egged on by—and reinforced by—Republican leaders, Fox News and others determined to exploit the deluded to serve their self-interests (read: money and power), no matter how dire the effect may be for our country and planet.

During the last two years, I worked on a project that gathered several dozen stories from survivors of extreme weather events (fires, floods, hurricanes, drought) on five continents and how the reality of these experiences turned their worlds upside down. Some suffered their house burning down, others saw their home or neighborhood wash away in a flood, still others struggled with tumultuous winds that convinced them their days in that location were numbered. Among these survivors were people who were convinced that climate change wasn’t real, even after the event as they struggled to rebuild their lives. (You can read an overview of the project that I wrote for The New Republic called “Lessons from the Frontlines of Global Warming.”)

Al Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006, and one major component of that film was his effort to convince viewers that climate change is real. But 15 years later, as extreme weather events have multiplied and intensified, I think it matters less and less whether you believe in climate change—because whether you do or don’t, your world may also be swept away in a hurricane, burned down in a wildfire or washed away in a flood.

The question now is—given the reality—what are you going to do about it? Are you going to prepare and make an effort to lessen the danger? Or are you going to linger in a world of delusion? Thankfully, at the moment, the US has a president and a team of people working to confront it—and that includes passing an infrastructure bill rooted in reality and attempting to finance some of the necessary changes. But that too will require overcoming the anti-reality crowd holding elected office.


I’ve devoted other dispatches to the topic of Americans listening to Tucker Carlson and others matching his deadly cynical, deeply self-serving ploy, including the most recent “The Power of a Lie.” I’m not suggesting that every person who denies the reality of climate change has also chosen to skip vaccination.

But I am quite sure that the Venn diagram of climate change deniers and COVID vaccination resisters would have a high degree of intersection. And the consequence of ignoring or refusing to grasp reality in both of these cases helps accelerate tragic outcomes. We are starting to see more and more stories of unvaccinated patients who regret not getting a shot when they still had time; well, we are also running out of time to elect leaders and pursue policies that will accelerate the energy transition and still give us a chance to address rising CO2 levels.


House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy doesn’t want a real investigation of the deadly attacks of January 6 that requires taking a hard look at what really happened, including shining a bright light on the inciters, funders and organizers. Of course, three of his selections voted not to certify the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. So it was probably inevitable that he pulled all the Republicans from the bipartisan Select Committee on Wednesday after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vetoed the worst of this bunch: Jim Jordan and Jim Banks.

We have seen how the Republicans are trying desperately to whitewash the horrors of January 6, coming up with provably—obviously—false claims that the day was largely peaceful and not really so bad. They have succeeded in convincing a majority of Republicans to believe such lies. A just-released CBS News poll found a declining percentage of Republicans who “strongly disapprove” of the actions “of those who forced their way into the Capitol,” down from 51% in January to 39% now.

But in that same poll, 72% of all Americans think “there’s more to learn” about the January 6 attack. So McCarthy can refuse to seat his committee members or he can lard it up with culpable insurrection-deniers in order to distract and confuse the public about what really happened. But the truth will come out. And when it does, let’s hope it arrives with indictments, prosecutions and jail sentences. This remains critical to convincing the extremists and their anti-democratic enablers that political violence is not a path to power.


I leave you with a comment on Tuesday’s arrest of Trump billionaire friend, campaign fundraiser and inauguration chief Thomas Barrack Jr., indicted on seven counts that include failing to register as a foreign agent, obstruction of justice and lying to federal investigators. (Of course, he pled not guilty.)

Barrack may have assumed his power and wealth will protect him from criminal prosecution, but the good news is reality came knocking. And that reality involved efforts to influence foreign policy on behalf of the United Arab Emirates. Jared, Ivanka and Donald may still imagine they are immune, but they have a lot more to worry about with Barrack in custody, unable to flee the country and potentially facing serious jail time.

As long as they remain free, convinced and demonstrating that the law does not apply to them, we are all left to wonder whether justice really exists—or is it only for those not wealthy or powerful enough to evade the real world in which the rest of us live.

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