Climate Change & Politics
Americans have an uncanny ability to politicize almost anything. You can be sure that once politics enters a discussion, no matter how important or complex the subject may be, it’s all downhill from there. There is no better example than the nation’s debate (or perhaps more accurately, lack of debate) over climate change. What began as a serious scientific inquiry into the state of our planet and it’s future has devolved into political theater. A question that cries out for sober and thoughtful inquiry has been reduced to the level of professional wrestling. I’m talking old school, WWF, good guys vs. bad guys wrestling. So, while the rest of the civilized world is engaged in an intelligent analysis of climate change and its potential implications, here in the U.S. we’ve turned the consideration of this issue into the equivalent of a steel cage match between Bruno Sammartino and Superstar Billy Graham.
In politics, stupidity is not a handicap-Napoleon Bonaparte
A recent documentary in the PBS series Frontline entitled Climate of Doubt did a far better job of showing exactly how the issue of climate change became politicized and eventually neutralized as an issue than I could ever do here. You can watch the show online here and it is well worth the hour you will spend. We consider ourselves an educated and progressive society, yet our actions indicate just the opposite. You may find a lot of what you see in this documentary aggravating or disturbing but nothing should be more disquieting than the statement ” the politics have gotten to the point where people just don’t want to listen to science”. That alone should send a chill down your spine.
The course that the debate over climate change has taken is just another sorry episode in modern American politics. The notion that a scientific question has a political answer, or more precisely, a partisan political answer, is insulting and dangerous. Basically, the polarization of factions in our country has made it acceptable to reject logic and reason because your political opponents have embraced them. Combine this with a concerted public relations effort made by special interests, namely the powerful oil and gas industry, who stand to suffer some degree of financial harm if the U.S. takes suggested measures in response to the threat of climate change, and we have a situation where scientific inquiry has been reduced to just another opportunity to divide the electorate for the advantage of one side or the other. This is mass national derangement.
The frightening part of this debate is that we have evidence that climate patterns are changing. What we don’t have is conclusive proof that these changes are either induced by human behavior or not part of the normal climate cycles that the Earth undergoes periodically. We just haven’t been able to accumulate enough scientific data over a long enough period of time to come up with answers to those questions with absolute certainty. We also have not had the capability to measure and analyze complex atmospheric dynamics for a long enough period of time. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Further, the evidence that we do have, including analysis of ancient deep ice core samples, sure does seem to point in the direction that something unusual is happening and that we have a hand in it.
The ability to exploit this uncertainty has been a boon for the climate change deniers. Combine this with the fact that Democrats were quick to react to climate science and the stage was set for a partisan split. After all, in today’s political world, if Democrats are for it, then Republicans have to be against it. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed a wide gap between Democrats and Republicans on the issue. 85% of Democrats, compared with 48% of Republicans felt that there was substantial evidence of climate change. Its amazing. Political affiliation can account for a nearly 40% difference of opinion on a scientific matter. You can check out the full text of the Pew report here. Do you think we could get a similar split of opinion if Democrats came out supporting a study that found that gravity exists?
One of the principles that Jefferson, Madison, Adams and the rest of the men who founded this country wanted to guide our national affairs was the belief and reliance on science and reason. I guess they never accounted for the toxic effects of partisan politics. However, the cynical manipulation of public opinion, primarily for the benefit of a very few, is something quite different. It speaks more to a national failure of critical thinking skills and a pervasive sentiment that the present is more important than the future. As bad as the effort to influence public opinion for political or monetary gain may be, our national susceptibility to that kind of control may be even worse. My, how little we have progressed. It’s hard to believe this is the same country that sent men to the moon and has successfully landed mobile probes on Mars.
This approach is the road to nowhere. We are faced with some real policy challenges and threats that may rise to the level of endangering modern civilization. Yet we are paralyzed by a partisan debate. It’s depressing. Whether or not you believe climate change has anthropogenic origins, you should understand that responding and adjusting to things like sea-level rise, changes in precipitation patterns and threats to the food supply are necessary and responsible. Whether or not you believe climate change is even occurring, reduction in reliance on fossil fuels and atmospheric pollution still make sense. Instead we end up addressing none of these issues. Lost in a nonsensical debate over the politics of the situation, we go around in circles while events progress. With a nod to the Talking Heads I suggest that you click here and allow this song to play while you read this article, it should at least put you in the right frame of mind to contemplate what a foolish course we are choosing as a nation. We have got to get past the politics that divide us.
We have got to demand better from our politicians. The good news in that Pew poll was that over 2/3 of Americans do believe that climate change is taking place. That means our national inaction on this issue is motivated by less than 1/3 of the population. That’s unacceptable. We need to stand up for science and reason. We need to require our representatives to get beyond partisanship and take action, or we need to get new representatives. If we are the educated and thoughtful country that we believe ourselves to be, we will do this. If science and reason really do guide our course of conduct we will take the necessary measures to respond to the threat of climate change. If not, then we haven’t really progressed much from the superstitious Dark Ages and we deserve that fate that awaits us. But I’m an optimist and I’m betting that this is not the future that we should expect. However, it isn’t going to just happen. We need to take an active role in creating change and we need to start now.