What If…?

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Let’s start with the obvious – the U.S. midterm elections are upon us, and it’s quite likely that the Republicans will win a majority. (My American friends tell me that this is possible even with Barack Obama remaining president. Please bear with my limited knowledge of the American political system. It works very differently in Canada.)

I’m not going to comment on partisan issues – health care, immigration, economic stimulus. What I am here to talk about is an issue that should not be partisan, but has become partisan regardless: science, specifically climate science.

Climate change is not a theory – it is the logical result of several theories, based in physics and chemistry, that scientists have understood since the 1800s. What’s political about that? Exactly what part of the equation dF = 5.35 ln(C/Co) is an opinion that differs based on ideological factors?

The political part comes when we ask the question, “What do we do to stop climate change?” A carbon tax? Cap-and-trade? Regulation? Some of these solutions are more liberal or conservative than others. The only decision that doesn’t adhere to U.S. politics is to do nothing. Absence of action is a decision in itself, and the overwhelming scientific evidence (based not just on computer models, but also observations of past climate changes) shows us that doing nothing will allow this problem to spiral out of control, causing damages that no amount of money will be able to repair. What U.S. party advocates leaving that kind of world to their grandchildren? As Bill McKibben says, you wouldn’t expect it to be the Republicans:

If there was ever a radical project, monkeying with the climate would surely qualify. Had the Soviet Union built secret factories to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threatened to raise the sea level and subvert the Grain Belt, the prevailing conservative response would have been: Bomb them. Bomb them back to the Holocene—to the 10,000-year period of climatic stability now unraveling, the period that underwrote the rise of human civilization that conservatism has taken as its duty to protect. Conservatism has always stressed stability and continuity; since Burke, the watchwords have been tradition, authority, heritage. The globally averaged temperature of the planet has been 57 degrees, give or take, for most of human history; we know that works, that it allows the world we have enjoyed. Now, the finest minds, using the finest equipment, tell us that it’s headed toward 61 or 62 or 63 degrees unless we rapidly leave fossil fuel behind, and that, in the words of NASA scientists, this new world won’t be “similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Conservatives should be leading the desperate fight to preserve the earth we were born on.

But they’re not. Instead, many are choosing a psychological easy way out: if every solution seems imperfect, deny that the problem exists. Out of all the Republican contenders for the Senate, none support action on climate change, and most deny the existence of anthropogenic global warming.

It is questionable whether all of these statements are sincere. Politicians, after all, will say whatever they need to say to get elected. If these Republicans feel that their voting base denies climate change, they will adjust their public statements accordingly. Look at John McCain – during the 2008 presidential election, his promises for clean energy were nearly as strong as Obama’s. Now, he rejects cap-and-trade, and views the anthropogenic cause of climate change in the Arctic as an “opinion”.

Admittedly, a new, but growing, segment of the Republican voting base overwhelmingly denies climate change. As the New York Times reports, Tea Party supporters have all kinds of convoluted arguments against a field of science they know virtually nothing about. It contradicts “the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture”, and it could be caused by “the normal cycles of nature” (whatever those are), so thousands of scientists spending their lives studying this problem must be missing something. Or they could be part of a massive conspiracy.

Republican candidates are catering to the extreme segments of their party, and, arguably, to their party as a whole. However, their plans to base action (or lack thereof) on the fervent hope that the scientific community is out to lunch may alienate voters who understand what a risk that would be.

Or so we hope. If Republicans get their way, climate science will not just be disregarded: the men and women who study it will be criminally investigated, for no reason other than that their research supports the existence of anthropogenic climate change. And since James Inhofe can’t find any gaping holes in the math, that means the scientists must be fraudulent, right?

The Republican Party also hopes to conduct yet another investigation into the private correspondence of scientists, stolen and distributed a year ago. Although these emails show that climate scientists are not always very nice, it does not undermine one iota of our understanding of the climate system, as five independent investigations have concluded. But that’s not the answer Republican officials want, so they will waste taxpayers’ money and researchers’ time with their own investigation. Kind of hypocritical for a party that promises fiscal responsibility.

I’m a Canadian. I don’t get a vote in this election. I am also eighteen years old. I, unlike most Republican Senators, will be around to witness the effects of climate change. We have wasted twenty years in the fight against climate change, and if we continue to let petty politics and finger-pointing delay us more, the whole world will suffer.

It’s no secret that American politics disproportionately influence the world. The same is true for American emissions of greenhouse gases, and American agreements to reduce these emissions, and American patterns of energy use and energy sources. So please, when you go to vote this week, think about not just yourself and your country but other young people and other countries too.

And please vote. I’ll leave you with some wise words from Seth Godin:

If you don’t vote because you’re trying to teach politicians a lesson, you’re tragically misguided in your strategy. The very politicians you’re trying to send a message to don’t want you to vote.

Voting is free. It’s fairly fast. It doesn’t make you responsible for the outcome, but it sure has an impact on what we have to live with going forward. The only thing that would make it better is free snacks.

Even if you’re disgusted, vote. Vote for your least unfavorite choice. But go vote.


17 thoughts on “What If…?

  1. I voted by mail several weeks ago.

    FYI, in the USA, elections for Congress and President are totally seperate. You vote for the Senators you want to represent your state and the Congressman you want to represent your local district in the House of Representatives.

    Republicans are very likely to gain control of the House of Reps, but Democrats will almost certainly retain a slim majority in the Senate. Unfortunately, with this divided Congress, and particularly with many Republicans stating that they have no interest in compromise and their main goal is to defeat Pres. Obama in 2012, Congress will be gridlocked as a result. For legislation to be passed, both the House and Senate have to pass their own versions, and then they negotiate a combined final bill. Since the Republicans control the House, they can block all legislation. And if they so desire, they can conduct investigations/inquisitions into climate science.

    In short, it will be at least 2 more years until we have another shot at a climate bill. And until 2012 (at least) American politics will be very, very ugly.

  2. The Republican Party has become the anti-science party with regard to climate change – the greatest threat to humanity now and in the future. As President Obama told John Stewart of the Daily Show:

    “You are not voting for the next election, you are voting for the next generation.”

    BTW, I am a registered Independent.

  3. If there’s one thing Americans hate, it’s change. I’m afraid it won’t matter which party is in power; people don’t want to give up their God-given houses, cars, food, luxuries, and profits. There’s no getting around it; a tenfold reduction in fossil fuel consumption will mean that our five most important vises will have to shrink to match. Who would risk destroying their country’s economy, not to mention their own lifestyle? Success is expansion; failure is contraction. We won’t do it, even though we know the consequences. “It’s not that bad, really,” we keep telling ourselves. “American ingenuity will come to the rescue in time; it always has.” Even though no one has a clue how that will happen.

    So even if the Democrats manage to maintain control of the government, don’t expect to see any significant climate change legislation in the next two years. Look at the resistance to reinstalling solar panels on the White House. This lack of enthusiasm is a good indication that the Obama Administration is only slightly more interested in mitigating climate change than their political opponents.

  4. American politics is barking mad. It has a lot in common with extremist politics that many Americans despise. Religion is politicised.
    I just see the country becoming less and less relevant to be honest.

    Possible future:
    Mass exodus of scientists predictable. Whilst capitalism around the world progresses forward and changes, America is left in a capitalist ‘Cuban’ style stagnation, desperately trying to keep going on 50 year old technology and 50 year old patriotic idealism, whilst fossil fuel prices rocket. Asia becomes ever more dominant with Europe pragmatically favouring trade relationships with Asia, securing raw materials for a post fossil fuel world.

  5. Roger:

    And to make matters worse, this quote from way back is just as applicable now as it was then: (emphasis mine)

    Consider how little McCain has to actually say in order to — for example — question Obama’s patriotism (and notice how the forceful activist [Democratic] “netroots” response is to … offer unsolicited advice about what Obama should do about it.) [… In contrast, n]obody waits around for the McCain campaign to tell them what to do, and nobody writes out terribly-well-thought-out lists of reasons why people shouldn’t believe the hype. They drown it out and get back on message. One side sits back, one side engages. One side wins, one side loses. This is not a coincidence.

    I find it infuriating that progressive groups like the Center for American Progress keep thinking of the climate activist movement as Obama’s movement, rather than their movement.

    Every time Joe Romm writes another post saying ‘President Obama, please give such and such a speech talking about the importance of climate regulation’, I wonder to myself, Why can’t they just give the speech themselves? Why?

    Guess what, someone’s doing the same silly thing again.

    The principal challenge facing the Obama Administration is to rally the nation to create a new 21st century economy.

    Unfortunately I don’t have as much money or manpower as these progressive groups — if I had half as much money and manpower as these groups, this sort of repeated begging is something I’ll very definitely not do.

    (Sorry, just had to vent. I kept trying to put this point across in comments at Climate Progress, but I kept getting moderated.)


  6. frank – people listen to the President. Few people listen to the Center for American Progress. They can make all the speeches they want, but it would have little impact on the public. The President, on the other hand, has a huge audience when he makes a major speech.

  7. I guess Roger got that point. Not just Americans but many other people (if not all of us) won’t like changes at all. We still miss any of serious political interest in climate change process. Green or any higher taxes are not popular in these days. The reason why is that many politicians need support from strong industrial patrons… Probably the only right ways is to start from ourselves – become to be greener…

  8. My English teacher, back in the 70’s, used to say, “America: the only country to go from barbarism to decadence without passing through a period of civilisation.”

    Looks like it has now gone full circle as the Barbarians seem to be taking over the government and superstition rules.

  9. Great post. Pity about the outcome.

    Minor point, which you may already be aware of: the NYT article quotes a Mr Dennison as denying climate change because the Bible says that God made the planet for humanity to use (which is a non-sequitur in any case, even if it were true that God doesn’t care how we (ab)use the place). This is far from an adequate summary of the Christian Scriptures and it is certainly not the case that there is any denial of anthropogenic climate change contained or implied in them.

    I’m a PhD student in Christian theology and ethics who is deeply concerned about climate change and think this is the only logical position for those who take the holy scriptures seriously (rather than cherry picking a verse or two to support their political ideology).

  10. Dana:

    True, but if Obama isn’t going to make the speech, then they should try putting together something themselves instead of constantly begging him. The CAP may not be the most influential organization in the world, but they sure have much more influence than one tiny me.


  11. The election results were rather mixed. The House of Representatives was an utter disaster, with Republicans gaining a significant majority. But the Senate wasn’t as bad as predicted, and Democrats may end up holding 53 (of 100) seats. Still, we’ll have a divided Congress and nothing will get done over the next 2+ years.

    At least in California we defeated Proposition 23 by a landslide, which would have killed our state climate legislation. In fact, Prop 23 lost by the largest margin of any Proposition on the California ballot, 61-39%. A major climate victory. California also elected Democrats to the Senate and governorship.

    A bit embarrassing to be an American today, but a proud day to be a Californian.

    Nice! I hadn’t heard about the results of prop 23. The Globe and Mail only covered the referendum on the legalization of marijuana. -Kate

  12. Dana, got any thoughts on Prop 26 passing? Some things I’ve read say that it will make it harder to penalise polluters and that Exxon spent US$4m backing it.

  13. I have been saying this for years now, but, alas, but no one seems to be listening. The battle is not about information anymore. There is a reason why the debate is so polarized: Everyone who can be convinced and persuaded by evidence has already been persuaded. (We have known about global warming for more than thirty years now.) The only way to eliminate the opposition is to persuade people that legislation is in their best interest. Republicans and conservatives don’t care about the facts; they only care about money. The only people who seem to understand this are the oil companies and their task is simplified by the fact that they are defending the status quo. We must find ways to convince conservatives that they will lose money denying global warming and make money if they invest in technologies that help resolve the problem.

    I disagree. I believe that, out of the people that have actually looked at the evidence, your statement holds – everyone who will be convinced has been convinced. However, much of the public doesn’t know anything about science’s understanding of the climate system, and thus become easily confused by conflicting claims they cannot assess. I agree that it is important to start emphasizing the economic costs of climate change – it’s not just about losing the polar bears. However, I think that information still has a vital role to play…a least in Canadian society. It’s always possible that things are much worse in the States than people are letting on! -Kate

  14. Dana said, “…nothing will get done over the next 2+ years.”

    I’m sorry to disappoint, but the public won’t demand climate change action until The River Runs Black. If I may, I would change your statement to “…nothing will get done over the next 20+ years,” because it will be at least that long before Americans are “gasping for breath.” Only when climate change hits home will they take notice. And then it will be too late.

  15. DreamQuester said, “The only way to eliminate the opposition without resorting to violence is to persuade people that legislation is in their best interest.”

    Unfortunately the opposition is us, the American public, which is why legislation is unlikely to happen for a long, long time.

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